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Status Report, Vol. 41, No. 8 | October 7, 2006 Subscribe

More than 1 of 5 drivers report falling asleep at the wheel

When a tractor-trailer overturned on a Maryland road, it spilled lumber onto the roadway below and killed a motorist. The same week in a nearby Virginia community, a jury awarded $17 million to the family of a 17 year-old killed in a truck crash.

Even worse was a Florida crash in which a truck hit a van, killing all seven of the van's child passengers. When their grandfather learned of the tragedy, he suffered a fatal heart attack.

A common aspect of these crashes is truck driver fatigue. The Maryland trucker had been driving for 16 hours without rest. The one in Virginia fell asleep at the wheel. The Florida trucker had napped only briefly during the past 34 hours. He didn't brake before hitting the van.

The Institute has been surveying truck drivers since 2003 to see how changes in federal work-hour rules are affecting the fatigue problem (see "Truck driver fatigue isn't falling under rule in effect since 2004," July 16, 2005). The trend during the past two years, under the latest set of federal rules, is for truckers to drive even more hours than they were reporting in 2003 surveys, exacerbating fatigue. Nearly 1 of every 5 truckers in 2005 reported driving more per day than before the current work-hour rules took effect in 2004. The proportion who reported falling asleep at the wheel at least once during the past month increased from about 13 percent in 2003 to 21 percent in 2005.

This is why the highway safety community is anticipating the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration's pending plans for electronic recorders in trucks to monitor drivers' hours. This step comes two years after a federal appeals court prodded the agency for its "passivity" on recorders and 20 years after the Institute first asked the government to require recorders in trucks (see "Try again on rules on truck driving hours, appeals court tells FMSCA," Aug. 1, 2004, and "Institute petitions BMCS to require tachographs," Nov. 8, 1986).

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