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Victims’ Misery Underscores Need to Strengthen Truck Hours of Service Rule; Congress Should Not PassDangerous Rule Into Law

Oct. 17, 2005

Victims’ Misery Underscores Need to Strengthen Truck Hours of Service Rule; Congress Should Not  PassDangerous Rule Into Law

Statement of Joan Claybrook,* Public Citizen President

The heart-wrenching stories you have heard today offer just a glimpse into the misery that too many families throughout this country endure because they have lost loved ones in truck crashes caused by tired truckers.

These brave people came here from all over the United States this weekend to share their stories, gather strength and urge government officials to change the rules to spare others from more suffering. They have experienced unimaginable sorrow and heartbreak.  But rather than be bitter, we all want to prevent harm to other families in these deadly crashes.

Our presence here is particularly timely, because today, Congress will likely take up the Department of Transportation (DOT) appropriations bill. The trucking industry tried to get the DOT’s terrible hours of service rule codified by enactment into law in the highway bill, H.R. 3, but failed. Now, the industry is trying to get this accomplished in the appropriations bill. This would only devastate more families because it permits truckers to drive and work far too many hours before stopping to sleep.

The new rule, issued in August by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, allows truckers to drive 11 consecutive hours, instead of 10 under the old rule, which was in place for over 40 years. Over the course of a week, truckers under this new rule can drive an additional 17 to 18 hours, and over the course of a month, truckers can drive an additional 70 hours more. That’s nearly two full workweeks for the average U.S. worker. This rule has the same problem as the old rule, in that a drive-and-rest cycle of less than 24 hours ignores the 24-hour biological clock.

No wonder trucking is the most dangerous occupation in America! Too many trucks on our highways are sweatshops on wheels. 

Here today are a few of the many victims of the government’s reckless policies, for which they pay the ultimate price. Over the next few days, these families who have lost loved ones in truck crashes will lobby members of Congress and ask them to reject the trucking industry’s demands to codify the DOT’s awful hours of service rule. We also have petitioned the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration to rewrite this bad rule and reduce the number of hours that truckers are on the road in one consecutive stretch. Our petition, filed in September, outlines in detail why the rule must be revised.

Today, we are also alerting travelers to beware of tired truckers particularly in the next few months because, amazingly, the government has notified truckers it will not enforce the new hours of service rule that took effect October 1, 2005, so the industry will have time to learn it—even though it is almost identical to the prior rule, which was overruled in court in 2004! This means trucking companies and shippers can force drivers to drive 14, 15, 16, even 20 hours a day with complete impunity from the law. And between October 24 and January 1, enforcement will be optional!  This policy may help the trucking industry, but it is an invitation to death and injury for truck drivers and for families driving on the highway.

This means truckers can drive until they literally fall asleep at the wheel, and the government—which is responsible for keeping our roadways safe — will sit idly by as the bodies pile up. And pile up they do. The danger big rigs pose to America’s drivers is growing. The Bush administration’s own data show that fatalities stemming from large truck crashes are up 3.1 percent from 2003 to 2004, the latest year for which data are available. The role fatigue plays in these large truck crashes is significant and  well known.

But this lackadaisical attitude is sadly typical for the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, which tends to do nothing until it is forced to act, and then does the minimum to get by.

Because of this deliberate lack of enforcement for the next two and one half months, we are sending the Travelers Alert far and wide. The alert warns the public to be on the lookout for trucks because very tired and lethal drivers may be behind the wheel. 

Large trucks are rolling time-bombs on our highways with tired truckers allowed to work 14 and 16 hours a day under the new DOT rules. The result is drivers are pushed far beyond their capacity, causing horrific crashes.   Our decades-long battle with the Department of Transportation to get reasonable truck hours of service rules continues as the families here fan out to talk to their members of Congress to stop enactment of these rules for longer hours of work. It is far past time for some sanity in our trucking rules and enforcement on our public highways.  

So, our message to Congress is loud and clear: Stop coddling the trucking industry and start caring about the safety of American families.

Joan Claybrook served as administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration from 1977-1981.