Trucking Made Better
The industry pointed to data that shows more accidents occur when there are more vehicles on the roads during the day. The lobbyists neglected to mention data showing that the rate of fatal accidents actually more than doubles during the overnight hours, even with vastly fewer automobiles on the roads. As soon as the updated regulation went into effect, trucking groups demanded changes, but FMCSA, which had spent years working on the rule , wasn't listening. That left the industry with the choice of pursuing an uncertain challenge in the courts, or appealing to Congress for relief.
By law, Congress can vote to disapprove a new executive agency regulation, such as the sleep rule, within 60 work days of the rule's publication. If Congress doesn't pass a disapproval resolution, lawmakers can propose specific legislation undoing the new rule, and hold hearings on the proposal in the relevant committee -- in this case, the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation.
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Going through either of those processes is the transparent, above-board approach. But that path does not often get the trucking industry what it wants. For years, the late New Jersey Sen. Frank Lautenberg D , a member of the commerce committee, blocked anything that he thought eroded highway safety, as did other safety-conscious members on the committee.
Lautenberg's successor, Sen. Cory Booker D , has sought to take up that mantle. The trucking industry needed a detour. It looked for an alternate route through the Senate Appropriations Committee, and found Republican Sen. Susan Collins, who represents the trucking-friendly state of Maine. The under-the-radar move might have been the end of the new rule. But unlike with the apnea bill a year before, a headline-grabbing tragedy caught the nation's attention shortly before the appropriations bill made it to the full Senate.
Two days after Collins got her amendment included, an exhausted Walmart truck driver speeding along the New Jersey Turnpike slammed into comedian Tracy Morgan's limo. When the transportation spending bill came to the Senate floor on June 19, Booker was waiting with his own amendment to block that of Collins. He took up his microphone and delivered a blistering speech against the provision, forcing Collins to defend the measure. But before the bill went to a vote, Senate leaders pulled the measure from consideration, in part because of the sudden controversy.
When the nation was again facing a government shutdown in the winter, she managed to slip her sleep-rule provision into the so-called CRomnibus, a huge, unwieldy spending measure that needed to pass by Dec. No one outside of Congress knew that the trucking provision had been attached to the bill until lawmakers shoved their shambling creation into the light on Dec. At that point, the measure could not be blocked, as it had been in the aftermath of Tracy Morgan's crash. Like the sleep apnea rule a year before, it passed under the cover of a funding battle, much to the disappointment of safety advocates, including Morgan's lawyer, Benedict Morelli.
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Morelli is right: Accidents like those that nearly killed Balder and Morgan happen with startling regularity. For instance, last spring while Congress was again quietly targeting trucking regulations, a string of crashes showed vividly the consequences of overtired truckers pushing past their limits. On April 22, a truck driven by John Wayne Johnson barreled through a line of cars backed up by an earlier truck crash on Interstate 16 in Georgia.
Johnson killed five nursing students from Georgia Southern University headed to their last training shift of the year. Lawsuits filed over the wreck say he had sleep apnea and a history of falling asleep at the wheel. He also may have been looking at pornographic pictures. On May 19, witnesses saw a tractor-trailer drifting between lanes as it neared a construction zone on that same Georgia interstate, near I The driver, David Gibbons, 61, smashed his rig into the stopped cars and also killed five people.
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On June 25, Benjamin Brewer, 39, spent 50 hours at work and was allegedly high on meth when he approached construction traffic on I in Chattanooga, Tennessee. He was going so fast, his truck careened on for feet after impacting the first car, according to the NTSB. He killed six people. On July 23, trucker Ruslan Pankiv failed to notice traffic backed up at a construction zone on I near Lafayette, Indiana.
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He plowed through the stopped vehicles, killing five people, including a mother, her two young sons and himself. Again, police suspected fatigue. Those are just cases for which drowsiness was explicitly stated as a possible cause. Most independent experts believe fatigue-related wrecks are significantly undercounted since there is no roadside exam or blood test for drowsiness, and drivers are often reluctant to admit they were nodding off.
In the case of Renato Velasquez, he insisted he hadn't dozed off, but he could come up with no other explanation his wreck. What's beyond debate is that hauling loads across America's highways is a draining, exhausting existence. And it's only gotten tougher since President Jimmy Carter and Congress deregulated the complex rules governing the economic side of the industry in , making it much easier for new companies to get into the business and setting off a surge in competition.
The change was good for consumers, who saw shipping prices drop as lower-cost carriers pushed out unionized firms. And safety did not immediately suffer, because technology improved and both the government and carriers grew more conscious of the practices that reduce the risk of crashes.
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But as unions vanished and the need for productivity and efficiency rose, pay for truck drivers plummeted. They now make less than they did in the late s when wages are adjusted for inflation. And there are now tens of thousands of small, poorly financed new trucking companies that have great incentive to push drivers as hard as they can.
Those drivers, who are often independent and own their own rigs, have to cope with managers' demands and all the safety rules that still exist, even as the close-to-the-bone industry leaves little room for error. Unpredictable hours, uncertain traffic, long stretches spent sitting alone behind a wheel, and meals that depend on roadside greasy spoons take a toll on drivers' health.
All that adds up to a circumstance that encourages drivers -- especially the growing number who have strict drop-off and pick-up times set in their contracts -- to take chances. And they do, frequently ignoring rest rules to make their schedules. Drivers for smaller outfits are especially likely to break the rules.
He had been a bus driver in rural Mexico, transporting workers to farms back in the '80s. He immigrated to the United States, and in earned his commercial driver's license in Illinois. The company, one of thousands of small-time shipping operations that have proliferated since deregulation, employed 49 drivers. Those drivers logged 5. Velasquez seldom saw the boss, or any other workers, and was dispatched remotely, according to his interview with federal investigators. He and another driver said they would drop off their logbooks and other records at a box outside Dimitrievsky's house once a week.
There appeared to be little oversight or enforcement at the company, the NTSB concluded. Although Velasquez said he never got safety training from his employer, records say that he received at least a little, and the company did possess some of the required safety training materials.
But DND also possessed a terrible, albeit remarkably common, safety record. In the two years before the crash, DND drivers had been subjected to inspections, according to federal records. Its drivers had been ordered off the roads 27 times, most often for hours-of-service violations -- driving more than the legal limit. The vehicles themselves were found to be in violation 26 times in inspections, a failure rate of 20 percent.
The company racked up seven crashes between March and January , causing one fatality and four injuries. The chances of a firm being involved in a fatal crash jump by 93 percent when it has an alert on unsafe driving and by 83 percent when it has received a warning for excessive hours-of-service violations, according to agency data.
And firms with two alerts have crash rates that are double the average among companies with no alerts. Independent drivers like Velasquez and his colleagues are paid by the load, not by the number of hours they work. A decent living requires good loads.