Between 3,000 and 4,000 people die in large truck and bus crashes every year in America, according to the Department of Transportation, which also says 13 percent of those deaths were caused by fatigued drivers.
The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration wants to see those numbers go down, so the enforcement of a new set of rules starts Monday.
The new provision has three main parts: First, drivers operating commercial vehicles must take a half-hour break within their initial eight hours on the road. The law also requires "restarts" — 34-hour off-duty periods designed to let drivers rest and catch up on sleep — once per week, and they must include two periods from 1 a.m. to 5 a.m. In addition, the agency has lowered the maximum weekly driving time by about 15 percent, to 70 hours.
"At the core of that rule is a tremendous amount of research about how fatigue contributes to our ability to be alert and how chronic fatigue undermines and operator's ability to run safely," says Anne Ferro, who heads the FMCSA.
At a truck stop near Interstate 95 in Maryland, truck driver Janessa Mann says those tired drivers are a real danger.
"The big accidents that happen [are] because the driver was up for 36 hours straight," she says. "Your brain can't handle that."
But many drivers say the 30-minute break stipulated by the new rules while reasonable, is unnecessary.
"Bottom line is, anybody that's been [driving] for a while or has a good head on their shoulders is going to know when they're gonna need to stop," says driver Troy Wittmer, on his way from New Jersey to Georgia.
The rules will only affect about 15 percent of truckers — those running the longest routes. Ferro says the changes could save as many as 19 lives per year, but she acknowledges there is a financial toll.
"Drivers are paid by the mile or by the load," she says, "so it really is the case, the longer you sit, the more money you make."
FMCSA estimates put the cost to the trucking industry at half a billion dollars. But Ferro says that increases in safety and improved driver health will mean a net economic gain of $200 million.
For truckers such as Mann, the realities of the road often leave drivers without a good option.
"Truckers are always gonna push it, because we don't have a choice," she says. "The stuff needs to be there. If you don't make it on time, the companies will make you sit in their parking lot for two to eight hours because you were late."
Ferro says she agrees pressure from companies can be a problem.
"The shipping and receiving industries, the customers of those trucking companies, also have an obligation to understand their role in the supply chain and the impact of their decisions on safety," she says.
And in fact, it is illegal for a trucking company to push a driver past the legal limits. Truckers have traditionally kept track of their hours in paper log books. But those hours are harder to verify and have been known to be falsified both by truckers and by their employers. A new generation of automated electronic logs — linked directly to a truck's engine — are being phased in across the industry.
Driver Gary Hewood, on the road to North Carolina, says that in the end it's a question of personal responsibility.
"It's up to the driver whether he's gonna make his money or get his rest," Hewood says. "And if he's got any sense in him, he'll make money and get his rest."
JACKI LYDEN, HOST:
If you've just joined us, you're listening to WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden.
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LYDEN: Let's hit the road. We're coming up to one of the biggest travel days of the year, and you might be out on the road with one of the three million big rig drivers. Every year, between 3- and 4,000 people die in large truck and bus crashes. Starting tomorrow, the long-haul truckers are going to have to shorten the hours they drive. New government regulations will start being enforced, aimed at reducing accidents.
Wheeling up Interstate 95 to Jessup, Md., to ask truck drivers their reactions, Janessa Mann look down from the cab of her 18-wheeler.
JANESSA MANN: The big accidents that happen, it's because the driver was up for 36 hours straight. Your brain can't handle that.
LYDEN: Anne Ferro heads the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, the agency cutting back on driver's hours.
ANNE FERRO: At the core of this rule is a tremendous amount of research about how fatigue contributes to our ability to be alert behind the wheel, and how chronic fatigue undermines an operator's ability to run safely and undermines health.
LYDEN: She says one new rule is that in the first eight hours on the road, drivers must take a 30-minute break. To some truckers, that law just makes sense. Troy Wittmer is on his way from New Jersey to Georgia.
TROY WITTMER: The bottom line is, anybody that's been doing it for a while, I guess, or anybody who's got a good head on their shoulders is going to know when they need to stop.
LYDEN: Gary Hewood also doesn't expect that particular regulation to change much.
GARY HEWOOD: Ain't no big deal. Everybody does that anyhow.
LYDEN: Some provisions, though, are more controversial. Right now, truckers have to take day and a half off for every seven days they're on the road. Truckers can pick the hours they want off. The new regs require them to take time off between 1 a.m. and 5 a.m. to respect circadian sleep rhythms. And the maximum number of driving hours allowed has been reduced from 82 to 70 per week.
These rules mostly will affect truckers driving the longest routes. Ferro says encouraging drivers to rest will save lives, and it will cost money, about $500,00 billion a year across the economy.
FERRO: Drivers are paid by the mile or by the load so it really is the case. The longer you sit, the more money you make.
LYDEN: But there are savings here too. The government estimates that the improvements and safety in driver health will net $200 million annually in reduced health care costs and other benefits. Even so, says Janessa Mann...
MANN: Truck drivers are always going to push it because we don't have a choice. The stuff needs to be there. If you don't make your appointment on time, these companies will leave you sitting there in their parking lot for anywhere from two to eight hours because you were late.
LYDEN: Ferro agrees that pressure from companies can be a problem.
FERRO: The shipping and receiving industries, customers of those trucking companies, also have an obligation to understand their role in that supply chain and the impact of their decisions on safety.
LYDEN: And in fact, it's illegal for a trucking company to push a driver past the legal limits. Truckers have traditionally kept track of their hours in their paper log books. Those hours though are harder to verify, and they've been known to be falsified both by truckers and by their employers. A new generation of automated electronic logs linked directly to a truck's engine are being phased in across the industry. But in the end...
HEWOOD: It's up to the driver whether he's going to make his money or when he's going to get his rest. And if he's got any sense in him, he'll make money and get his rest.
LYDEN: That's Gary Hewood again on the road to North Carolina. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.