Tracy Morgan accident puts spotlight on truck driver fatigue

The recent accident involving Tracy Morgan has increased scrutiny of driving practices in the trucking industry. On June 7th, 2014 a tractor trailer rear-ended the limo carrying comedian Tracy Morgan. Passenger James McNair was killed and Tracy Morgan was seriously injured. At the date of this blog, the accident was still under investigation, but driver fatigue is highly suspected. The New Jersey police reported that the driver had not slept in over 24 hours.

This high profile incident has spurred debate on federal regulations involving over the road trucks. Currently there are a number of regulations pertaining to truckers, many of these were implemented in 2012 after trucking fatalities started to increase in 2011:

  • Drivers are not allowed to drive longer than 11 straight hours.
  • Commercial drivers are limited to a 14 hour work day
  • Mandatory 30 minute break during the first 8 hours of shift
  • A 34 hour rest break over every 8 days of driving
  • 2 nights of sleep during hours of 1:00 am and 5:00 am during the 34 hour rest period

Additionally, federal regulations require truckers to log their hours; there is a proposed requirement for trucks to have electronic monitoring devices, but this has not been approved by the federal government. Many trucks are now equipped with safety devices that warn truckers when approaching heavy traffic or automatically slow the truck down as it approaches slow or stopped traffic.

Many in Washington are calling for more legislation aimed at preventing driver fatigue. At the heart of the mater is that nearly 4000 deaths are caused each year by large truck crashes. Driver fatigue has been cited as a related cause in at least 13% of all truck accidents. Many are understandably concerned about an 80,000 pound vehicle and the driver’s condition. After five years of steady decline in truck related fatalities, 2011 and 2012 saw an uptick in accident rate.

Many in the trucking industry are opposing more regulations, citing that the current regulations are already forcing unsafe behavior by truckers. An example is the 14 hour day limit; if a trucker runs across bad weather and would prefer to pull over and rest, the 14 hour rule may cause the trucker to keep driving. The regulation that requires drivers to have two nights of sleep between the hours of 1:00 am and 5:00 am is putting more trucks on the road during rush hour traffic, creating a higher risk of accidents. The trucking industry also argues that there is no way to effectively regulate sleeping patterns. Like any industry, regulations can increase costs without any perceived benefit.

The issue is not going away anytime soon as the amount of trucks on the road is steadily increasing. Trucking is a vital part of our commerce system. Added regulations may have good intentions, but many in the trucking industry believe that allowing more flexibility for the trucker will have better results. One hopes that some effective solutions are proposed for reducing accidents.

Perhaps better uses of technology that help trucks avoid collisions is a more thoughtful direction. There is already technology that can sense traffic stoppage and automatically brake; there are warning systems that tell truckers when the truck is swaying outside of the lane and camera systems that give truckers a much better view of the traffic around the rig. Driver drowsiness detection systems are already emerging; one such technology has computer controlled camera systems monitoring the driver’s facial features. Things like eye movement, blinking, and facial muscle changes are indications of someone about to nod off. Such detection systems can sound alarms that “stun” the driver back to full consciousness. A sound technological solution would address all major issues for truck accidents, driver fatigue is one cause, but blind spots have caused just as many accidents.

Large trucks are going to be a significant part of the shipping and packaging industries for many years to come. Sensible solutions that make the roads safer will not only make trucking safer, but in the long run more economical.