This scene is all too common on North Carolina highways and back roads: on a recent July night near the end of a long drive, a Georgia trucker hauling over 20 tons of a highly combustible chemical overturned on a sharp mountain curve. He had followed GPS commands onto a rural gravel road between Lenoir and Banner Elk, where he planned to sleep for the night before delivering his load the next day. Perhaps the only uncommon thing about this accident is that no other vehicles were involved, and nobody was severely injured or killed.
Trucking accidents like this happen for a variety of reasons: unbalanced or shifting loads, brake or steering failures due to improper maintenance, and collision avoidance are just a few plausible scenarios. But all too often the operator of the semi has exercised poor judgment because of fatigue and a selfish desire to push ahead a few extra miles before taking a legally required break.
New Hours-of-Service (HOS) Rules Pending in Washington
The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) is one U.S. government agency responsible for regulating interstate trucking. A persistent push for changes to federal hours-of-service rules for long-haul truckers by advocacy groups could finally result in significant progress for highway safety. Under current guidelines, truck drivers are subject to the following restrictions:
- 11-Hour Driving Limit: Truckers are limited to a maximum of 11 hours of driving after 10 consecutive hours off duty.
- 14-Hour Limit: Truck drivers may not drive beyond the 14th consecutive hour after coming on duty, following ten consecutive hours off duty. Off-duty time, such as stopping for fuel or meals, does not extend the 14-hour period.
- 60/70-Hour On-Duty Limit: Truckers may not drive after 60 hours on duty in a seven-consecutive-day period, or after 70 hours in an eight-day period. A driver can only resume a 7/8 consecutive-day period after taking 34 or more consecutive hours off duty.
Advocacy groups point to studies that show how small reductions in these limits would decrease the frequency of accidents and injuries. After months of listening sessions, congressional testimony and deliberations, the FMCSA submitted a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking for a new hours-of-service rule to the Office of Management and Budget in late July. But the road to a final bureaucratic resolution is a long one: after the OMB’s review period, the proposed rules will be open for public comment until January 2011. FMCSA Administrator Anne Ferro recently told a Senate subcommittee that a final rule may not be issued until the summer of 2011.
Enhanced Protection for Truck Drivers and Other Motorists
The reason for strict regulation of commercial driving hours is obvious: semis, tanker trucks and flatbeds dwarf the size and mass of other motor vehicles. When collisions occur, there is seldom any doubt as to which occupants are likely to be seriously injured. And despite the best crafted and fairest regulations possible, truck crashes will still cause tragedies on North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee roads. Catastrophic injury victims and families of fatal truck accident victims should seek timely advice about their legal options from an attorney who is experienced in the complexities of truck accident litigation.