All drivers are subject to distractions, and, in fact, research indicates that between 25% and 50% of all motor vehicle crashes in America are due to driver distraction. Texting is the most dangerous of all distractions, followed by–surprisingly–rubbernecking. Other common driver distractions, for truckers and all drivers include driver fatigue, fiddling with the radio or GPS, giving your attention to passengers or children, reading maps or other documents, cell phone use, and even looking at scenery or daydreaming.
Fatigue may well be the most dangerous truck driver distraction, as evidenced by the recent collision concerning comedian Tracy Morgan. Prosecutors in the case say the Walmart truck driver whose 18-wheeler careened into the vehicle carrying Mr. Morgan, had been awake for more than twenty-four hours. Morgan suffered critical injuries, including a brain trauma, another comedian in the vehicle lost his life, and two others in the vehicle were seriously hurt. The truck driver denies the allegations, claiming he was not overly fatigued, and Walmart is attempting to shift at least some of the blame to Morgan, claiming he was not wearing a seat belt at the time of the accident.
Five years ago, near the town of Miami, a 76-year old truck driver fell asleep and plowed into a line of cars stopped on the highway. Ten people were killed in the accident, and, as horrific as this accident was, such trucking accidents caused by fatigued drivers are actually fairly common. In all, between 30,000 and 50,000 people die on highways annually; large trucks are responsible for one in seven of those deaths. Federal rules reduced the maximum workweek for truckers from 82 hours down to 70. Drivers who hit their limit must have a mandatory 34-hour rest period, and are not allowed to drive more than eleven hours at a stretch with a thirty-minute break in their driving time.
The scope of the problem of fatigued truck drivers is up for debate because it is difficult to obtain evidence that the driver fell asleep prior to the accident. Nonetheless, a NTS study of 182 large truck accidents concluded fatigue played a role in at least 31%—more than alcohol or drugs. Since that time, the Department of Transportation claims fatigue-related trucking accidents account for only about 13% of the total.
However, fatigue is typically under-reported during a crash investigation because neither the driver nor the trucking company wants to admit fault in the collision. Deborah Hersman, former chairwoman of the NTSB describes the issue succinctly: “Until we have a blood test for determining fatigue, all estimates are likely going to under report fatigue, because the dead don’t speak and the living often plead the Fifth, especially if they are facing criminal charges.”
Truck drivers are under enormous pressure to get their loads delivered as quickly as possible. Many trucking companies, while not actively encouraging their drivers to exceed their allowable driving hours, do not discourage the practice either. Drivers only get paid for the time they are actually driving, and the quicker the loads are delivered, the more money the trucking company makes.
Truck drivers are also known to eat while driving, for the same reason–to deliver the load quickly and receive a larger paycheck at the end of the month. Eating is one of the top ten distractions for all drivers, but is more likely to occur with truckers. Because the nature of long-haul trucking is that it happens to be a very solitary profession, truckers are also more likely to engage in other dangerous distractions such as cell phone use, changing radio stations and looking at their GPS when in unfamiliar areas.
The takeaway is that while most drivers engage in distracted driving behaviors at least some of the time, truck drivers are more likely to engage in instances of distracted driving. Sadly, when a trucker causes an auto collision, there is a pretty good chance that someone will die. For these reasons, distracted truck drivers are extremely dangerous on our roads.