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3 reasons truck drivers continue to drive fatigued

Written by Steve Gursten Posted March 7th, 2013

Sporadic schedules, inadequate mandatory breaks and trucking professional culture cause truckers to drive tired and cause crashes

fatigued truckers

Fatigued truck drivers are an enormous hidden danger on our roads. We’ve written before about this, and about the importance of being well rested when driving large tractor-trailers. There have been posts about the risks of driving fatigued, as well as the long and short term health effects on the truckers themselves. In fact, the immediate risks of driving fatigued are now becoming common knowledge both with the public and inside the industry itself. Yet there are still many truckers out there who insist on putting themselves and other motorists at risk by driving fatigued, past hours and without proper sleep and rest.

Earlier this month, for example, I came across this story: Semi truck driver falls asleep, crashes truck. A truck driver fell asleep behind the wheel while making his delivery. As he dozed off, his truck veered off the right side of the road. The semi struck a culvert, then a utility pole, before coming to rest.

The truck driver was injured, and taken to the hospital.

Everyone knows driving an 80,000 pound truck – or any motor vehicle – is a bad idea. So why do so many truck drivers still do it?

As attorneys who have been handling trucking accidents for many years, we’ve found it boils down to a few primary factors:

  1. A truck driver’s schedule is sporadic: It is common to have loading and unloading times that vary wildly. A driver might have a 2:00 a.m. load time one day, and a 3:00 p.m. load time the next. This unpredictable schedule makes it difficult to get into any kind of a sleep pattern.
  2. The mandated 10-hour break doesn’t mean 10 hours of sleep. Another problem is that the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) mandates a 10-hour break, but that 10 hours does not mean 10 hours of sleep. The reality is that drivers will log their break when they are loading or unloading a shipment. Sometimes this can take as long as four hours. Furthermore, truckers, like the rest of us, are human and require food. It might take an hour or so to grab a meal. Then there is time taken to bathe. This further reduces the available time on the break. When it is all said and done, that 10 hours can easily translate into only about four to six hours of actual sleep.
  3. Professional culture of truckers pushes them to drive fatigued: The most alarming – and most inexcusable – reason for truckers driving fatigued is the professional culture. Drivers have a saying: “Drive when you have to, sleep when you can.”

This is unacceptable. The saying is backwards.

It should be, “Rest when you have to, drive when you can.”

This is a classic example of the professional culture of trucking sometimes clashing with common sense safety measures. And truckers aren’t unique. Doctors go through sleep deprivation in their residencies, and many other professions have similar “initiation” or rites of passage that they know is unhealthy, but are reluctant to give up. But just as a sleep deprived doctor can make easily preventable medical mistakes that can kill someone – causing almost all states to now pass “Libby Zion” laws to protect patients – a trucker who falls asleep behind the wheel of an 80,000 pound truck is a ticking bomb waiting to go off, killing or injuring whoever is unlucky enough to be in the way.

The troubling part is that professional culture is something completely within the control of truck drivers. This is something within their power to change. Nobody is blaming the truck drivers for the circumstances; a truck driver cannot dictate when a pick-up or drop-off is scheduled. However, what truckers can do is be more responsible. If you are tired, please don’t drive, or if you’re already driving, exit the road as soon as you safely can. Staying on the highway is not worth the risk.

Lawyers can help correct this industry problem by doing our jobs better. Too many lawyers handle truck accidents like car accident cases with bigger policy limits. Most personal injury lawyers do not know how to read trucking log books, or know which experts to send these logs to be reviewed. Driver qualification and personnel files are never requested, or they don’t know the rules, so clear violations are missed. And without legal and financial consequences when something bad happens, such as after the crash, the trucking companies have no incentive to change their ways… which makes the next trucking crash only more likely.

Crashes caused by driver fatigue are entirely preventable. Use discretion and exercise sound judgment. Don’t drive when you are fatigued. Protect others, and protect yourself.

Steven Gursten Photo

About Steve Gursten

Attorney Steven Gursten is president of the Motor Vehicle Trial Lawyers Association and past president of the American Association for Justice Trucking Litigation Group. He has been named a Michigan Lawyers Weekly "Leader in the Law" for his efforts to prevent truck accidents and promote national truck safety. Steve was also a Michigan Lawyers Weekly "Lawyer of the Year" for a record settlement in a truck accident case. He has received the top reported truck accident jury verdict and top reported truck accident settlement in Michigan for multiple years, according to published year-end compilations of all jury verdicts and personal injury settlements by Michigan Lawyers Weekly. He has been named a "Top 50 Super Lawyer," by SuperLawyers, is listed in Best Lawyers in America, and has been awarded an AV-rating by Martindale-Hubbell, which is the highest rating for legal ability and ethics. Steve speaks to lawyers throughout the country on truck accident litigation. He is a founding member of the Truck Accident Attorneys Roundtable, head of Michigan Auto Law, and has dedicated his legal career to making our roads safer.
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