Driving big rigs a dangerous job
Workers clean up the site of an 18 wheeler accident near Shreveport last year. There have been three accidents involving 18 wheelers in the Acadiana area during the past week.
Last week’s head-on collision between two 18-wheelers was as rare as it was violent. While several first responders that the Post-Signal spoke with had worked multiple collisions involving 18-wheelers, none could remember a rig crossing the median and striking another head-on.
According to a study by the website BusinessJournal.org, truck driving is listed among the most dangerous jobs along with occupations such as mining, logging and commercial fishing.
Last Wednesday’s accident is still under investigation and, due to the condition of the victims and the rigs, it may be impossible to pinpoint exactly what caused the westbound rig to cross the median.
What is known, however, is that the long hours truck drivers work often cause chronic fatigue, which led the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration to issue several regulations to combat the problem.
“These fatigue-fighting rules for truck drivers were carefully crafted based on years of scientific research and unprecedented stakeholder outreach,” said FMCSA Administrator Anne S. Ferro. “The result is a fair and balanced approach that will result in an estimated $280 million in savings from fewer large truck crashes and $470 million in savings from improved driver health.
“Most importantly, it will save lives,” Ferro added.
FMCSA’s new hours-of-service final rule:
• Limits the maximum average work week for truck drivers to 70 hours, a decrease from the current maximum of 82 hours;
• Allows truck drivers who reach the maximum 70 hours of driving within a week to resume if they rest for 34 consecutive hours, including at least two nights when their body clock demands sleep the most — from 1 a.m. to 5 a.m.; and
• Requires truck drivers to take a 30-minute break during the first eight hours of a shift.
The final rule retains the current 11-hour daily driving limit and 14-hour work day.
Following a string of accidents in the 1990s, the rules were put in place as a means of improving the safety of those traveling on the highway. Jurisdiction falls under the Department of Transportation (DOT).
The weigh stations that are built along the interstate system were created not only to make sure the cargo an 18-wheeler is carrying is within the proper guidelines, but to check a driver’s logs and to ensure that a driver is not suffering fatigue or is possibly under the influence of alcohol or another substance.
However, according to a source familiar with the industry who wished to remain anonymous, oftentimes weigh stations are simply ignored by truck drivers these days.
“Back in the 1970s on Interstate 10 there just weren’t as many 18-wheelers on the road,” he said. “If a driver would bypass (a weigh station), there was a state police officer that would stop him and make him return.
“Nowadays, with so many more businesses and the need for more trucks, there are just so many rigs on the road,” he said. “They bypass the weigh stations regularly and are simply ignored by the authorities who run them.”
There is also a very high rate of alcoholism and substance abuse reported among truck drivers. Due to the challenges of their jobs, truck drivers will use stimulants such as pills, cocaine or methamphetamine to get them through a shift, endangering their own lives and as well as the others on the road.
Since the early 1990s, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration and its predecessor agency has defined drug and alcohol testing rules and regulations for employees who drive commercial trucks and buses that require a commercial driver’s license (CDL). These regulations identify who is subject to testing, when they are tested and in what situations.
However, it is evident that some people slip through the cracks.
Norman G. Roberts, 45, of Texas, pleaded guilty to two counts of negligent homicide on Feb. 9, 2004, in connection with the deaths of Helene Thibodeaux of Carencro and Richard J. Lafleur of Lafayette. According to state police reports, Roberts was driving down U.S. Route 90 on April 24, 2003, when he slammed into the back of a pickup truck, starting a chain-reaction accident that took the lives of two people and injured many others.
In the truck, troopers found alcohol, cocaine, methamphetamine and other drugs along with 28 pornographic tapes, one of which was playing in a VCR.
While this case is obviously extreme, it’s an example of how, in some cases, a driver can operate with little regard for safety or the welfare of others on the road.
There have been three (at last count) major accidents along I-10 in the past week and none of the drivers exhibited nearly the reckless behavior of Roberts. However, one of them still lost control of a vehicle that weighed approximately 20 to 30 time more than a car and takes 40 percent longer to stop.
It should be re-emphasized that the investigation into last Wednesday’s accident has not uncovered any evidence that either of the drivers involved had broken any regulations nor was involved in any illegal activity. It should also be noted that the majority of truck drivers follow all the necessary rules and steadfastly follow their company’s safety rules.
It appears to be those drivers and the employees that encourage them to cut corners for a profit that draw the most concern. And until businesses in which trucking is vital emphasize the importance of safety to their drivers, their fatigue and other work-related problems will remain a hazard to travelers on Louisiana’s highways.