Highway roulette

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"If the American people ever realized who was behind the wheel of those 18-wheel monsters," Branson adds, "they'd be more afraid of truck drivers than they are of AIDS."

What Branson's office uncovered in the Haas case further convinced him to be distrustful of the trucking industry. By the time Judy Haas hired Branson, all of the company's records from the time of the accident had been destroyed. Federal law only requires trucking companies to keep logbooks and time cards for six months. If a driver has been in an accident, the company has to keep his records on file.

But even without the records, problems at Redi-Mix still were readily apparent, even when the company abided by the letter of the law. Working 15-hour shifts with eight hours off doesn't leave a driver much time for a life, much less sleep. Redi-Mix compounded the problem by not taking into consideration how far away many of its drivers lived, which further cut into the amount of time they had to rest

In Kenneth Edwards' case, he commuted to work two hours a day. On the days he put in a full 15 hours and had to be back in eight hours, he was left with at most six hours to sleep. It was also difficult to develop regular sleep patterns, because one day his shift would start at 1 a.m. or 2 a.m., other days at 6 a.m. or 7 a.m.

Like most of the federal trucking laws, the eight-hour rest rule was written in the 1930s and primarily applied to interstate drivers. In 1982, when the Surface Transportation Assistance Act gave states federal funding, states were required to adopt federal rules. The eight-hour rule is one of a number of regulations designed for the long-haul driver, who drives from location to location and can sleep in the back of his truck. This rule obviously doesn't take commuting time into account. Federal law limits truckers to work no more than 60 hours in any seven-day period or 70 hours in an eight-day period. In 1996, the trucking industry tried to ease the regulations by pushing through legislation that would start the clock again after a driver had been off for a full 24 hours. The provision was defeated, except in instances in which drivers are working within a single state for the construction industry or servicing public utilities.

"It's a huge loophole, one you can literally drive a concrete truck through," says David Stopper, a national truck safety expert based in Virginia and the head of the commercial vehicle accident reconstruction department at the Texas Engineering Extension Service at Texas A&M.

Stopper teaches all over the world and investigates 50 to 60 crashes a year. "Statistically trucks do well, given how many miles they drive each year. The sad part is, most crashes are preventable. I've seen a little too much. It's scary what's going on out there."

An expert witness for the plaintiffs in the Haas case, Stopper believes that this loophole is what allowed Kenneth Edwards to work past the point of exhaustion. Before the accident, Edwards had put in more than 90 hours in the preceding eight days. If he had been working in any other industry, say hauling vegetables instead of concrete, Stopper explains, he would have been out of compliance by 20 hours.

In every other state, truckers are exempt from keeping a logbook on board if they stay within a 100-mile radius; in Texas the radius is 150 miles. "If you have no records of how long you've been driving on board, it makes enforcement almost impossible."

Truckers also are allowed to drive two hours longer in Texas than in any other state. Two hours doesn't sound like much, but it can make a difference, especially if you're doing it every day, Stopper says.

"Driving a truck is hard work," says Stopper, who drives a 62-foot camper back and forth from Virginia to Texas twice a year. "There's physically more to do and more thought processes involved in operating a tractor trailer than flying a 747. In flying a commercial plane, you have a control tower keeping you from hitting another plane, and once you get it in the air, you're on autopilot and kick back. Physically, there's a lot more to do in driving a truck and you have to think all the time."

There's no guarantee that truckers will abide by even Texas' more lenient laws. Edwards' time sheets show he was over the legally allotted work time by 8 minutes the day of the accident. The day before the accident he had returned to his shift earlier than the eight hours he was supposed to be off. On other occasions, records show he sometimes worked 16 hours--an hour longer than he was allowed legally.

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Ann Zimmerman