On July 27, 1994, a propane truck was traveling along Interstate 287 in White Plains, New York when its driver fell asleep behind the wheel. The resulting crash and subsequent explosion were devastating. The driver was killed, and nearly two dozen others suffered injuries in the fiery blast. The destruction did not stop there—five homes burned to the ground and 12 more sustained damage. Many in the area thought the orange fireball was a bomb, and investigators initially did not understand why the truck slammed into the overpass.
Investigators eventually discovered the tanker driver’s long record of driving violations, and that he worked for a company with an established history of violations and fines from the state. However, an autopsy revealed that the driver had no drugs or alcohol in his system before the accident. Instead, the 23-year-old driver was just tired—he had just two-and-a-half hours of sleep in the 65 hours before the crash.
Exhaustion and a lack of regulation caused one person to die, 23 people to sustain injuries, and five families to lose their homes. Safety advocates raised their voices—it was time for regulations for hours of service to improve. Sleep-deprived truckers continue to cause serious accidents throughout the nation, causing about 62 fatal accidents each year. Now, the regulators are heeding calls from the trucking industry to decrease regulations on long-haul drivers and how much they can drive.
What Regulators Are Considering
Regulators are considering allowing truck drivers to drive for 14 hours, up from the current limit of 11, as long as they’ve had 10 hours of inactivity. Current hours-of-service rules began in 2012. Truck industry complaints about driving time requirements come one year after regulators required all trucks to have electronic activity logging instead of paper. Paper logs were subject to fraud, and electronic logging help ensures accurate record keeping.
How Truckers Feel About Hours of Service
Truckers argue that the need for increased driving time is a matter of practicality. Drivers claim that increased hours of service would account for some of the obstacles they face while navigating highways. In a comment to USA Today, trucker Jose Williams confirmed this sentiment.
“It’s just difficult for regulations to see what’s actually happening outside the windshield of that driver’s truck,” said Williams. “You are the commander of the ship. You are the last word in whatever decision goes on in the movement of that 80,000-pound vehicle. That authority, in my view, should not be challenged.”
The trucker commented that, just weeks before speaking with USA Today, he faced unexpected roadblocks for a parade in New York City. He couldn’t make travel to his destination and found himself approaching his 11-hour limit. He had to park his truck for hours until authorities cleared the roadblocks. Williams commented that snowy roads, accidents, and other unexpected events force detours and delays which make driving with an 11-hour limit difficult.
What Safety Advocates Say About Hours of Service
Advocates for regulations say they are meant to protect drivers from overzealous employers and keep the public safe from exhausted drivers. Shaun Kildare, a senior director of research for Advocates, commented to reported why hours-of-service regulations matter.
“We need strong hours of service to ensure that because of those market pressures that we enable the drivers to push back and say ‘I don’t have those extra hours. I need to rest. By law my vehicle needs to stop,” Kildare said.
The NTSB Report for the 1994 Crash Supported Regulations
In its investigation of the New York accident, the NTSB found pressures which contributed to the driver’s behavior leading up to the crash. First, the NTSB noted that the driver was paid by the load instead of by the hour. So, he made more money by driving more and making his delivery in as few days as possible.
“The driver was confronted with a difficult decision,” the report found. “If he rested properly (and in accordance with Federal requirements) he would be unable to complete his scheduled deliveries at his normal or expected time, thus adversely affecting his income. The flat hourly rate he would be paid for the 10-hour breakdown would not fully compensate him for finishing his deliveries. The Safety Board concludes that he chose to sacrifice his rest in order to complete his deliveries within his normal schedule.”
The NTSB concluded that the pay-per-load model the driver was working with caused him to drive far more than he should have. It's investigators claimed that the man sacrificed rest in favor of lowering his overhead. Instead of protecting him, the system encouraged him to make dangerous decisions. Paraco, the company the driver was working for, has since abandoned paying drivers by the load.