How Often Do Truck Drivers Have to Take Breaks?

Any time you drive on the highway, you’ll probably see dozens of big-rigs and 16-wheelers. That’s because trucking is an incredibly important part of the U.S. economy, accounting for nearly 84% of the revenue generated by the commercial transportation industry. (To put that number into greater perspective, the runner-up – railroads – contribute just over 5.5%.) With so much money literally riding on the industry, professional truckers inevitably face a choice: make the fastest journey possible, or get replaced by someone who will. As a result, many truckers violate their shift limits and intentionally drive while fatigued. Unfortunately, this can lead to fatal truck accidents in Philadelphia and throughout the nation.

How Many Truck Accidents are Caused by Driver Fatigue?

It’s simple common sense that fatigue and driving don’t mix. The proof of this is everywhere: in the vibrations of rumble strips, the buzz of neon diner signs advertising late-night coffee, the glaring lights of rest stops. Just think of how you function at work after a poor night’s sleep – you’re irritable, you’re apathetic, you’re slow to make decisions you know should be simple. You can’t remember what you were doing five minutes ago. You keep asking your coworkers to repeat basic information. Things that are part of your daily routine suddenly seem overwhelming.

truck accident

Now imagine you’re responsible for safely maneuvering 80,000 pounds of steel down a skinny, monotonous highway lane – and you’re traveling at a constant speed of 70 or 80 miles per hour.

You wouldn’t feel very safe getting behind the wheel, would you? Of course you wouldn’t; it’s an obvious recipe for disaster. The dangers are so blatant that the phrase “do not operate heavy machinery” has become part of our cultural lexicon. Nonetheless, it’s a decision countless truckers make every day – to the extreme detriment of the drivers and passengers with whom they share the nation’s roads.

Exactly how many truckers choose to drive while fatigued is unknown. To quote the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), which recently published an extensive study on the cause of large truck crashes, “It is known that many drivers drive while fatigued, but accurate estimates are not available.” While acknowledging this uncertainty, the NHTSA still describes driver fatigue as “an important crash cause.” Just how important might alarm you.

According to an NHTSA brief on the same study, which assessed “a nationally representative sample of nearly 1,000 injury and fatal crashes involving large trucks,” fatigue was a documented factor in 2.6% of crashes – and before you dismiss that as being a negligible figure, consider that driver inexperience was a factor in 2.2% of crashes, drugs were a factor in 1.8% of crashes, and alcohol was a factor in just 1.0% of crashes. In fact, the only factor more common than driver fatigue was unfamiliarity with the area, which was recorded in 3.4% of crashes. (The brief also noted that, beyond the 963 crashes included in the study, driver fatigue was a factor among 18,000 crashes, or about 13% of all national truck accidents.)

FMSCA Hours of Service (HOS) Regulations

The trucking industry is regulated by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA), which is part of the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT). The FMSCA has established hours of service regulations, commonly referred to as the HOS regulations. These regulations are designed to limit the consecutive hours truckers may legally drive, which would – at least theoretically – cut down on the incidence of crashes caused by tired or sleeping drivers. Yet in practice, the HOS regulations don’t always work – not because they are poorly constructed, but because they are frequently ignored. Even the NHTSA acknowledges that “HOS regulations that attempt to reduce fatigue are highly controversial and widely violated.”

So what do the regulations entail, and to whom do they apply?

To answer the second question first: almost all truckers. Specifically, HOS requirements are applicable to all trucks which:

  • Weigh over 10,000 pounds. (The average car weighs anywhere from 2,000 to 4,000 pounds, and most commercial trucks weight at least 20,000 to 30,000 pounds.)
  • Are used or designed to transport:
    • At least 16 passengers, not for compensation (including the driver).
    • At least nine passengers, for compensation (including the driver).
    • Carry hazardous materials in quantities large enough to require placards. Some examples include oxygen, flammable gas, toxins, and radioactive materials.

truck with defective products

To answer the first question, the regulations are divided into a few separate requirements. Additionally, drivers who carry passengers are subject to slightly different rules than drivers who carry property. For simplicity’s sake, we will describe here only the regulations pertaining to drivers who carry property, since most truckers fall into this category:

  • 11-Hour Driving Limit – Truckers may drive up to 11 hours “after 10 consecutive hours off-duty.”
  • 14-Hour Limit – Truckers cannot drive past 14 consecutive hours after resuming duty, “following 10 consecutive hours off-duty.”
  • 60-, 70-Hour Limit – Truckers cannot drive after being on-duty for 60 to 70 hours in a period of seven to eight days.
  • Rest Breaks – With some exceptions for short-haul trips, truckers cannot drive unless “eight hours or less [sic] have passed since [the] end of driver’s last off-duty or sleeper berth period of at least 30 minutes.”
  • Sleeper Berth Provision – If a trucker chooses to use this provision, he or she must spend “at least eight consecutive hours in the sleeper berth, plus a separate two consecutive hours either in the sleeper berth, off-duty, or any combination of the two.”

The NHTSA’s position is that “HOS violations themselves do not cause crashes, just as night or even excessive alcohol use does not cause crashes. Rather, we hypothesize that each increases the risk of crash involvement.”

If one of your loved ones was killed in a truck accident in New Jersey or Pennsylvania, you and your family may be entitled to compensation to help with the expenses caused by your tragic loss. Truckers must obey the FMSCA’s HOS regulations, and drivers or carriers may be liable for failures to comply.

To set up a free, completely confidential legal consultation, call Philadelphia personal injury lawyer Brent Wieand at (888) 789-3161. Please don’t hesitate to call, even if you aren’t sure whether you have a case or need an attorney. Brent will answer your questions, explain some of your potential legal options, and help you understand your rights and responsibilities.

***Disclaimer: This article is for informational purposes. It is not legal advice and should not be used as legal advice. Brent’s law office is located in Philadelphia, PA, and serves clients throughout Pennsylvania. So if you need a personal injury lawyer in Chester County or an attorney in Montgomery County, Brent is here to help.***

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