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Status Report, Vol. 42, No. 7 | June 15, 2007 Subscribe

All trucks need recorders, not just those driven by habitual violators

It's no secret that truckers often drive when they're feeling fatigued or have been on the road longer than federal rules allow. Fatal crash statistics bear out the deadly consequences when truckers drive while they're drowsy, and most often it's the people in passenger vehicles who die, not the tired truckers.

Electronic recorders can help curb work-rule offenses. They're required in big rigs in the European Union, Japan, South Korea, Brazil, and Venezuela, but the U.S. government has refused to require them for all large trucks. Instead the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) is proposing to mandate them for only the worst habitual violators of hours-of-service rules, which make up a tiny fraction of all carriers.

"By failing to mandate electronic onboard recorders in all large trucks, the agency has signaled once again that it does not intend to take meaningful steps to reduce the serious problem of truck driver fatigue. The proposed rule, if promulgated, will be a travesty," Anne McCartt, Institute senior vice president for research, said in April comments to FMCSA.

The agency wrongly assumes there are only a few problem carriers and drivers, McCartt says. Institute surveys of truck drivers indicate that 20-25 percent violate work rules and 1 in 5 had fallen asleep at the wheel during the previous month. Work-rule violations are associated with dozing at the wheel (see "Trucker fatigue: 1 of 5 drivers reports falling asleep at the wheel," Oct. 7, 2006, and "Truck driver fatigue isn't falling under rule in effect since 2004," July 16, 2005).

Without an across-the-board mandate, detecting the carriers who flout the work rules is problematic. The National Transportation Safety Board told FMCSA it lacks "the resources or processes necessary to identify and discipline all carriers and drivers who are pattern violators." The safety board also objected to the agency's proposal to use recorders to punish offending motor carriers. Using the devices this way would "undermine the goal of achieving voluntary industry-wide acceptance," the safety board said.

McCartt points out that the government isn't taking into account the large number of trucks already equipped with recorders. About 45 percent of the long-distance truckers the Institute surveyed in 2 states in 2005 said their rigs had recorders, up from about 18 percent in 2003 and 38 percent in 2004. Of the truckers who reported having recorders, only 10 percent or fewer said they were using them in lieu of easily altered paper logbooks to show compliance with work rules.

"It is no longer credible to argue that the devices are too expensive or burdensome for widespread use. It is past time for research, pilot studies or government/industry cooperative ventures. It is time for action," McCartt told the Senate Subcommittee on Surface Transportation and Merchant Marine Infrastructure, Safety and Security during a May hearing.

Sen. Frank Lautenberg, chairman of the subcommittee, expressed puzzlement at FMCSA's inaction. "I'm perplexed as to why the [agency] proposed in January to require recorders on as few as 465 of the more than 700,000 trucking companies in this country," he said, adding that "under the proposal, only 1.5 percent of the industry will even be inspected for compliance with truck safety laws each year. I'm not sure the trucking industry themselves could have written a more favorable proposal."

Efforts to improve enforcement of truck driver work-hour rules span more than 3 decades. In 1971 federal legislation was introduced to require commercial trucks and buses manufactured after January 1974 to have tachographs to record driving time, but the legislation wasn't enacted. In 1986 the Institute petitioned the Bureau of Motor Carrier Safety (now FMCSA) to require automatic recorders to be installed and used in all heavy trucks. The petition was denied, and during the intervening 20 years an estimated 16,030 people died in crashes involving tired truckers. This included 11,750 people in passenger vehicles, 2,257 large truck occupants, and 2,023 others on the road.

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