Dangers of Truck Accidents
Every day, millions of motorists occupy the nation’s highways to drive to work, transit through town, or travel across country. Most of the vehicles on the road are cars and SUVs (sport utility vehicles). But every motor vehicle must share the road with “big rig” trucks or “18-wheelers.” In fact, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics for 2022, there are 13 million trucks operating in the United States. Almost 3 million of those are tractor trailers. And if you are like most drivers, you know that sharing the road with huge tractor trailers can be a harrowing and often dangerous experience.
Although trucks pose more significant dangers on the road than cars because of their incredible size and weight, the federal government enforces an entire body of rules and regulations that all truck drivers must follow to ensure safety on the highway. The government agency responsible for overseeing the commercial trucking industry and enforcing safety rules for commercial truck drivers is the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA).
What is the FMCSA?
The FMCSA is the agency currently charged with regulating the safe operation of commercial vehicles. Congress established the FMCSA in 1999 in response to the unacceptable number and severity of crashes involving commercial motor vehicles at the time. Congress charged the FMCSA with creating rules and regulations to ensure that:
- commercial motor vehicles are maintained, equipped, loaded, and operated safely;
- the rules and responsibilities imposed on the drivers of commercial vehicles do not impair their ability to operate their vehicles safely;
- the operators of commercial vehicles are in adequate physical condition to operate their vehicles safely and periodically undergo physical examinations performed by qualified medical examiners;
- operating a commercial vehicle does not negatively affect the physical condition of the operators; and
- operators of commercial vehicles are not coerced by any authority or participant within the industry (such as carriers, shippers, and receivers) to operate their vehicles in a way that violates federal regulations.
To accomplish these directives, the FMCSA maintains and enforces a host of rules. Some of the most important rules affecting safety are the “hours-of-service” rules.
What Are the "Hours-of-Service" Rules?
The “hours-of-service” rules are regulations that basically limit a driver’s working hours and conditions to ensure safety. The hours-of-service rules impose three primary requirements on a driver, which include:
- limiting the number of hours that a driver can work or drive within a particular window of time;
- limiting the distance that a driver may drive during those time periods; and
- imposing record-keeping requirements to enforce compliance with the regulations.
Hours-of-service rules have been a part of the commercial trucking industry for almost 100 years. The Interstate Commerce Commission implemented the first hours-of-service regulations in 1938. Since then, the hours-of-service rules have changed as the dangers posed by commercial vehicles and the need for greater safety on the roads have consistently increased.
How Have the Hours-of-Service Rules Changed?
Since their inception in 1938, the hours-of-service rules have changed in an effort to provide greater safety. Here are some of the significant ways in which the hours-of-service rules have changed over the years.
The original hours-of-service rules established in 1938 placed limitations on the following aspects of a driver’s work:
- The total number of working hours per day (“on-duty” time). Drivers were considered to be “on duty” from the time they were ready to begin work until the time they were relieved from all work responsibilities. The original rule allowed drivers to be “on-duty” no more than 15 hours in any 24-hour period.
- The drivers’ time behind the wheel. During those 15 hours of on-duty time per day, a driver could not operate the vehicle for more than 10 hours in any 24-hour period unless the driver was “off duty for 8 consecutive hours during or immediately following” the 10-hour driving period.
- The number of hours worked per week. The original hours-of-service rules set a maximum of 60 hours of “on duty” time per week.
Under the original rules of 1938, time spent in a truck's sleeping berth did not count as “on-duty” time. The original hours-of-service rules also required drivers to keep a daily log of their on-duty hours and time behind the wheel.
In 1962, the Interstate Commerce Commission created specific exceptions from the record-keeping requirements for “short-haul” drivers. At the time, a short-haul driver was any regular employee who drove only within a radius of 50 miles of the garage or terminal at which they reported for work.
In 1980, the Commission imposed a 12-hour limit for on-duty hours. It also expanded the short-haul record-keeping exemption to a 100-mile driving radius. The exemption applied only if the driver returned to the location where he or she reported to work within 12 hours.
In 1995, Congress created mandatory regulations dealing with fatigue-related issues commonly experienced by drivers.
In 2003, the FMCSA implemented regulations for all trucks carrying property, which:
- increased the required “off-duty” hours from 8 to 10 consecutive hours;
- prohibited driving after 14 hours from when the driver began work; and
- increased the permitted driving time from 10 to 11 hours;
- allowed short-haul drivers to drive up to 16 hours one day a week.
However, in 2004, a federal court revoked these rules, finding that the FMCSA failed to consider the impact of the rules on the health of drivers.
As a result, in 2005, the FMCSA issued a new rule for drivers of commercial vehicles that carried property. The new rule:
- required drivers to take a minimum of 10 consecutive hours off duty;
- limited driving time to 11 consecutive hours within 14 hours of beginning work; and
- prohibited driving after being on duty for 60 hours in 7 consecutive days or 70 hours in 8 consecutive days.
The 2005 rule also created a new exemption for short-haul drivers of property-carrying vehicles that do not require a commercial driver's license. It provided that if the drivers operate within a 150-mile radius, they are exempt from the record-keeping requirement. It further allowed a 16-hour driving window twice a week if the driver experienced “unusual scheduling demands.”
In 2007, a federal court vacated portions of the 2005 Rule, including the 11-hour daily driving limit, because the FMCSA failed to follow proper administrative procedures in creating the rule and failed to explain its reasoning for the rule.
In 2011, the FMCSA created a rule that again increased the daily driving limit to 11 hours. However, the rule also prohibited driving unless the operator had taken a 30-minute break from all work within the previous 8 hours. This new 30–minute off-duty break requirement applied to both long- and short-haul truckers.
In 2013, a federal court approved most of the 2011 rule but vacated the 30-minute break requirement for short-haul drivers, finding that the FMCSA failed to justify applying the rule to these drivers. In its decision, the court found that “off-duty” breaks provided the greatest benefit to safety.
In 2012, Congress required the FMCSA to promulgate a rule requiring all commercial motor vehicle drivers to use electronic logging devices to improve compliance with the hours of service regulations. The FMCSA finally issued that rule in 2015 but exempted short-haul drivers from this requirement.
On June 1, 2020, the FMCSA revised four provisions of the hours-of-service regulations to provide greater flexibility for drivers, arguably without adversely affecting safety. These changes became effective for drivers on September 29, 2020, and include the following:
- Changes to the short-haul exception.
The 2020 changes to the rules expanded the short-haul record-keeping exemption in two ways:
- First, it extended the maximum on-duty period from 12 hours to 14 hours. This duty period must begin and end at the same reporting location.
- Second, it extended the maximum radius for which the short-haul exception applies from 100 to 150 air miles. As a result, more drivers can take advantage of the simplified record-keeping requirements by not having to use a graph grid or electronic logging device. Instead drivers may simply record their time in, time out, and total number of hours per day. This record must be maintained for 6 months.
- Changes to the adverse driving conditions exception.
Under the previous rule, drivers had an exception from their driving limit when unforeseeable adverse driving conditions affected their route. Adverse driving conditions may include:
- Other adverse weather conditions
- Ice- or snow-covered highways
- Unusual road or traffic conditions that were not known to
- the driver before going on duty; or
- the motor carrier immediately prior to dispatching the driver.
Adverse driving conditions may not include:
- Accidents involving the driver
- Breakdowns or enforcement inspections
- Loading and unloading
- Road construction or detours (unless the driver could not reasonably know about these conditions prior to driving).
Under the 2020 rule changes, drivers may extend the length of their on-duty limit and their driving time by up to 2 hours when they encounter adverse driving conditions. This extension applies to:
- the 14-hour on-duty window and 11-hour driving limit for property carriers; and
- the 15-hour on-duty window and 10-hour driving limit for passenger carriers.
- Changes to the 30-minute break requirement.
The 2020 changes also narrowed the 30-minute break requirement. Now, the 30-minute break is only required after 8 cumulative hours of driving, without a 30-minute break, rather than after 8 hours of working without a 30-minute break. The driver may satisfy the 30-minute break requirement by:
- being off duty;
- being on duty but not driving (this may allow other job-required physical labor like loading and unloading); or
- occupying the sleeper berth.
The driver may adopt any combination of these qualifications as long as they add up to 30 consecutive minutes of non-driving.
- Changes to the sleeper berth provision.
The 2020 final rules also modified the requirement that drivers take a minimum of 10 consecutive hours off duty by allowing drivers to split that period into two parts. This can be done as long as:
- one off-duty period (either in or out of the sleeper berth) is at least two hours long; and
- the other period involves at least 7 (rather than 8) consecutive hours in the sleeper berth.
The combination of these periods must total at least 10 hours, and neither qualifying period counts against the required 14-hour driving window.
The purpose of the 2020 rule changes was to provide more flexibility to drivers and carriers to meet the demands of the market without jeopardizing safety and the health of the drivers.
What are the Effects of the Most Recent Changes to the Hours-of-Service Rule?
As occurred in previous years following changes to the hours-of-service rules, certain groups did not approve of the new rules. Following the 2020 rule changes, the labor union representing truck drivers (the International Brotherhood of Teamsters) and several national nonprofit organizations (Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, Citizens for Reliable and Safe Highways, and Parents Against Tired Truckers) collectively argued in court that the FMCSA failed to adequately explain how the new rules provide more flexibility for drivers and carriers without:
- negatively impacting the driver’s health;
- increasing the risk of collision with other drivers; or
- diminishing overall compliance with hours-of-service regulations.
However, on July 26, 2022, a federal court concluded that the FMCSA adequately explained the basis for its 2020 amendments and sufficiently grounded its support in the administrative record. The court denied the petition to invalidate the new rules.
If the Court Approved the Most Recent Changes to the Hours-of-Service Rules, Why Do I Need a Truck Accident Attorney?
If you have been involved in an accident involving an 18-wheeler or other commercial motor vehicle, call the Kansas City truck accident attorneys at Foster Wallace, LLC. As you can see from this article, the trucking industry is a highly regulated space with extremely detailed rules and requirements that truck drivers and commercial carriers must follow.
Although a federal court has approved the most recent changes to the hours-of-service rules, the rules are often broken. Many truck drivers exceed the maximum driving hours and ignore mandatory requirements to take breaks from driving and other work-related duties in an effort to meet the increasingly demanding requirements of the industry. To provide more flexibility to drivers, the FMCSA has once again relaxed the rules that were designed to keep the roads safe.
If you have been in a truck accident, you need an experienced truck accident attorney who understands the complex safety rules that apply within the industry. Call the Kansas City, Missouri personal injury attorneys at Foster Wallace, LLC, at 816-249-2101 for a free initial consultation to discuss your case. You may have a right to compensation for your resulting damages and injuries.