Highway roulette

In Texas, more people die in truck crashes than any state in the country. It's not an accident.

As with alcohol, everyone's tolerance of sleep deprivation is different. This has made the subject of restricted truck driving hours contentious. Compounding the problem, fatigue is difficult to detect; there is no scientific equivalent to a Breathalyzer or blood test to measure how sleep-deprived a trucker is. Checking a driver's logbooks is not always reliable; forgery is rampant in the industry.

Regardless of its controversial nature, trucker fatigue has become a pre-eminent truck safety issue, thanks to the efforts of Parents Against Tired Truckers, a national organization started in Maine in 1994. Similar to Mothers Against Drunk Driving, the influential lobbying group begun more than a decade earlier, PATT was started by grief-stricken parents who began looking for answers after their teenage son was killed in a collision with a long-haul trucker in Maine in 1993.

"Fatigue is finally coming to the forefront, but we've had to pay one hell of a price," says Daphne Izer, who launched PATT with her husband, Stephen, from the kitchen of their Maine home.

Daphne Izer still cries when she talks about the night a Wal-Mart long-haul tractor trailer drove over the car driven by her 17-year-old son Jeff, killing him and three friends. "It's overwhelming at times, especially around the holidays," Izer says.

For four days, she and her husband had believed the trucker's version of events, which placed the blame on her son. The trucker claimed that Jeff, who had pulled off the road because of engine trouble, was parked partially in the travel lane. Police found, however, that there was no evidence the truck driver had taken any evasive measures to avoid hitting the car. Coupled with eyewitness accounts maintaining that Jeff was completely off the road with flashers on, and that the truck swerved into the car, police concluded the driver was either severely fatigued or asleep.

The driver also told several versions of when and where he had slept in the previous 36 hours. Toll receipts showed he was in New York at the time he claimed to have been in New Hampshire sleeping.

Izer will never know for certain how much--if any--sleep the driver had. "Fatigue as a whole is underreported as a cause in truck crashes," she says. "Drivers are not going to admit they fell asleep at the wheel. In 98 percent of truck-crash fatalities involving another vehicle, it is the person in the passenger car who dies, so who is left to dispute the trucker's story?"

The driver spent four months in jail and paid a $1,000 fine for falsifying his logbook, but there was no law to hold him criminally responsible for killing four people.

The Izers have been on a campaign ever since to raise awareness of the need for improved truck safety. One of their first victories was persuading the Maine legislature to pass a law making drivers subject to manslaughter charges if a truck driver violates hours of service laws and kills someone in a crash. The driver's supervisor would also face charges if the supervisor causes the driver to violate the rules.

PATT, which has a dozen chapters around the country--although none in Texas--has been less successful in getting the rest of its agenda adopted on a national level. Among the laws PATT would like to see changed is for truckers to be included on the Fair Labor Standards Act, so they would be paid by the hour and get overtime. As it stands now, most truckers are paid by the mile or the load--a practice Europe banned a long time ago--and they spend a lot of time loading and unloading or simply waiting around, for which they are not compensated.

"If truckers were paid by the hour, it would reduce the incentive to drive fatigued and to speed," Izer says. "Free labor is supposed to be gone in this country. The trucking industry makes a fortune off the backs of drivers who are killing people, and it's not always the driver's fault. But it doesn't change, and drivers shouldn't have to fear for their jobs if they refuse to violate the law or if they stop to rest."

It is for stands like this one that PATT ironically has found some of its strongest support within the ranks of truckers.

PATT and other safety groups would also like to see the federal government mandate that heavy trucks be equipped with on-board computers to track the amount of time drivers are on the road. Computer logs would be harder to falsify than a logbook kept by the driver, and it would be less work for the trucker. Europe has made on-board electronic recorders mandatory, but the Federal Highway Administration has consistently rejected proposals for a similar mandate during the last decade.

When PATT recently petitioned the administration once again to make them mandatory. The agency called for a study. "They study everything to death," Izer says.

Perhaps the most contentious issue is exactly how much time truckers should be on the road and how much time they should be allowed to rest. Both trucking groups and safety advocates agree that the rest period between shifts should be lengthened. PATT would like to see on-duty hours--which includes non-driving work hours--cut from 15 to 12 and the rest period lengthened from 8 to 12 hours. Trucking groups recently mounted a strong lobbying effort actually to increase the amount of time truckers are allowed to drive. The American Trucking Association suggested allowing truckers to drive up to 15 hours without sustained rest, which safety groups successfully opposed this fall.

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