Longform

Highway roulette

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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.

The ATA argued its position with the help of a study it conducted with funds from the highway administration, which concluded that it was the time of day truckers worked, rather than the amount of time on the road, that caused driver fatigue. An independent panel of experts hired by the administration however, concluded that the study had several serious flaws.

The trucking industry does have a valid point when it claims that present laws may actually promote fatigue. Take, for example, the driver who puts in 10 hours on the road and finds himself at his next destination at 4 p.m. He is expected to sleep for the next eight hours, which many find difficult to do in daylight hours. So after a few fitful hours of sleep, he hits the road again at midnight. He has taken his obligatory eight hours off, but he is hardly rested.

The trucking industry's solution would be to allow truckers to drive more hours. Safety groups agree that truckers should not have to work at times that are odds with natural circadian rhythms--the body's natural tendency to be awake during the day and sleep at night. But driving longer hours is not the answer, they say, pointing to numerous studies that show truckers who drive more than eight or 10 hours increase their risk of a crash two-fold.

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Ann Zimmerman