How Congress and the Trucking Industry Made Our Highways Deadlier
If you need an example to illustrate the deadly consequences of large truck crashes and the negligent practices that often cause these wrecks, you would be hard-pressed to find a clearer and more alarming example than the case of Illinois State Trooper Douglas Balder.
Balder — whose story has been told in a number of national news media outlets — pulled over his squad car to assist a Chicago-bound tractor-trailer on a snowy January night in 2014 when another big rig plowed into the back of his car at 63 miles per hour, exploding the gas tank.
Balder’s flaming car was thrown forward into a ditch, and although he managed to escape the vehicle with his life, he suffered severe burns. He was placed into a medically-induced coma for six weeks and required three months in the hospital and 10 surgeries, followed by ongoing and indefinite rehabilitation, in order to recover.
What makes Balder’s account even more upsetting is the backdrop of thorough negligence that set these devastating events in motion. Not only did a National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigation into the accident discover that the truck driver who hit Balder was falling asleep at the wheel after falsifying logs and driving 34 hours straight against regulations, but the report also showed that the carrier of the truck Balder had stopped to help had NTSB alerts in multiple safety categories and that its drivers falsified work logs more than half the time.
Sadly, it doesn’t take a freakish coincidence for someone like Mr. Balder to wind up caught between two negligent drivers and their 80,000-pound trucks. These types of reckless behaviors are commonplace in some segments of the trucking industry, and our lawmakers in Congress have had a recent and significant hand in creating the ragged patchwork of insufficient trucking safety regulations that lets them persist.
Highway Safety Defeats: A “Blow-by-Blow” History
In April, the Huffington Post published a remarkable in-depth article summarizing the many pieces of legislation that have rolled back trucking safety rules in recent years — often with little public fanfare but much to the dismay of highway safety experts. Below are just a few prominent examples of how safety is being relegated to the back seat in the trucking industry.
- Defeat for sleep apnea screening efforts.
Sleep apnea is a known cause of fatigue, which the FMCSA says is a major factor in many truck wrecks. The FMCSA estimates that almost one-third of commercial truck drivers have mild to severe sleep apnea.In September 2013, trucking industry lobbyists convinced members of Congress to write a law that prevented the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) from issuing binding guidelines that would require truck drivers to get screened for sleep apnea. These guidelines were intended to provide a stop-gap safety measure while the FMCA pursued formal rulemaking measures — a process that can take years — regarding the sleep apnea problem.
This move from Congress came despite the fact that the National Transportation Safety Board lists requiring medical fitness for duty as one of its “Most Wanted” transportation safety improvements and says it has linked obstructive sleep apnea to a number of major transportation accidents since 2001.
- Failure for fatigue-fighting restrictions on drivers’ hours.
In July 2013, the FMCSA enacted a new regulation that effectively cut truck drivers’ maximum weekly hours from 82 to 70 by requiring them to take two consecutive nights of rest with no driving from 1:00 a.m. to 5:00 a.m.This move came in the face of mounting evidence that driver fatigue is a leading cause of truck crashes — evidence that led National Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx to declare that “the best science tells us that [having truck drivers operating up to 82 hours per week] is unsafe and will put lives at risk.” The U.S. Department of Transportation estimated that the new hours-of-service regulations would save 19 lives and prevent approximately 1,400 crashes and 560 injuries each year.Unfortunately, in December 2014, Republican Sen. Susan Collins wrote a provision that temporarily barred the FMCSA from spending any money to enforce the new rule and asked the organization to study the issue further. This provision passed as part of a large spending measure to avert a government shutdown, and no one outside of Congress knew about the provision until four days before the bill needed to pass in order to prevent the shutdown.
- Attacks on trucking safety in an annual transportation bill.
In 2015, lobbyists persuaded lawmakers in the House of Representatives to attach a number of trucking industry-backed policy riders to the annual transportation funding bill for 2016. These included:
- A rider that would have raised the nationwide length limit for double trailers to 33 feet each, making the total length of trucks that carry them about 80 feet. This measure would have taken away states’ ability to ban these extra-long double trailers, despite data showing that they have a higher crash fatality rate and create increased wear on roads and bridges. The Senate later removed this rider from the bill amid controversy.
- A provision that extended the December 2014 suspension of the FMCA’s fatigue-fighting hours-of-service regulations. This rider passed with the final legislation.
- A measure that blocked federal regulators’ efforts to raise insurance requirements for trucking companies, which have remained stagnant since the 1980s. A weakened version of this measure, which required regulators to evaluate a number of different factors before raising the insurance requirements, passed with the final spending bill.
- A provision that hid trucking company scores in the FMCA’s Behavior Analysis and Safety Improvement Categories (BASIC) — which the FMCSA uses to rate companies and identify dangerous carriers — from public view and also barred their use in lawsuits. The lawsuit part of this provision was dropped, but the other part of the provision passed with the final bill and the BASIC scores were removed from public view on the FMCSA’s website.
In all, the trucking industry spent $81.1 million between 2012 and 2015 to lobby in favor of these and other regulatory changes, such as lowering the minimum age for truck drivers from 21 to 18.
The highway safety ramifications of these ongoing regulatory rollbacks has been clear: large truck crash deaths in the U.S. increased every year between 2009 and 2013 according to the FMCSA, with the annual fatality total rising to 3,964 — an increase of almost 600 deaths — during that time.
At Truck Wreck Justice, we see the long-term impacts of these devastating wrecks on a daily basis as we represent the victims of large truck and bus crashes to demand justice and compensation for their injuries and losses. As longtime advocates for trucking safety, we sincerely hope that Congress will begin to put the health and well-being of citizens who drive on U.S. highways — including responsible truck drivers — ahead of the profits and interests of negligent trucking companies.
Unfortunately, the recent history of rollbacks in trucking safety regulations shows that our lawmakers have a long way to go.
Contact the Law Offices of Morgan Adams if You’ve Been Hurt in a Trucking Accident
If you or a loved one has been injured in a crash involving a large truck or bus, Truck Wreck Justice Attorney Morgan Adams can help. With years of experience and a sole focus on large vehicle cases, Morgan Adams has the skills and resources required to tackle the complicated legal issues surrounding a trucking accident and to advocate aggressively on your behalf.
Please contact Truck Wreck Justice at (432) 265-2020 or fill out our online contact form if you are seeking legal representation or assistance. We offer free consultations to help you gain a better understanding of your legal options, and we handle cases on a contingent fee basis, which means that you’ll only pay fees or case expenses if and when we achieve a monetary award or settlement on your behalf.
Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. (2013, July 1). New hours-of-service regulations to reduce truck driver fatigue begin today [press release]. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Transportation. Retrieved from https://www.transportation.gov/briefing-room/new-hours-service-safety-regulations-reduce-truck-driver-fatigue-begin-today
Foxx, A. (2014, December 8). Why we care about truck driver fatigue. U.S. Department of Transportation. Retrieved from https://www.transportation.gov/fastlane/why-we-care-about-truck-driver-fatigue
McAuliff, M. (2016, April 16). Trucks are getting more dangerous and drivers are falling asleep at the wheel. Thank Congress. The Huffington Post. Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/congress-made-trucking-deadlier_us_56fd6f92e4b0a06d58052ee8
National Transportation Safety Board. (2015). Most wanted transportation safety improvements. Washington, DC: National Transportation Safety Board. Retrieved from http://www.ntsb.gov/safety/mwl/Documents/MWL_2015_Factsheet_08.pdf
Pack A.I., Dinges D.F, & Maislin G. (2002). A study of prevalence of sleep apnea among commercial truck drivers (Report No. DOT-RT-02-030). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Transportation, FMCSA.