Truck Driver Fatigue: When Trucking Companies Push Their Drivers Too Hard

Dan: If you’re running a transportation company without adhering to regulations, standards, CDL manuals, it’s only a matter of time before that results in something catastrophic.

Rob: So, why is it important that truckers have limits on the hours they’re allowed to be behind the wheel? Well, that’s what we’re gonna find out today, because that’s what we’re going to ask the lawyer. Hi again, everybody. I’m Rob Rosenthal, with askthelawyers.com. And my guest is Philadelphia attorney, Daniel Sherry. Dan, thank you for making some time to answer our questions today.

Dan: Thank you so much for having me on.

Rob: So, let’s just talk about trucking company regulations. I’m guessing there’s a lot of them. Who regulates the trucking companies, and why is that important in this field?

Dan: What we talk about is not merely regulations, but what we talk about is standard of care. And the different types of regulations and laws and best practices and recommendations, they appear in a variety of different publications. Most of which the public itself can download and acquire. That includes the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations, but also includes state laws pertaining to commercial vehicles, as well as commercial driver’s license manuals. Every single state has a CDL manual and there’s quite a lot of overlap state to state in terms of how drivers are trained to properly operate commercial vehicles, as well as perform all of the relevant operations that a driver needs to perform, including pre-trip inspections, and abiding by various standards applicable to how many hours you can work in a given time period and how you should conduct operations when driving, including in problematic weather and driving at night.

Rob: Let’s talk about hours. When people maybe take a road trip in their family vehicle, they jump in, maybe they drive 10, 11, 12-hour, maybe they’ll all get out and walk around a little bit, then get back in the car and drive. Why is it important to have regulations on the hours behind the wheel for big rig drivers?

Dan: Well, first and foremost, if somebody, even a lay person driving the family station wagon drove for 10 hours and only took a minor break and then plowed into a plaintiff, there would be a good claim against that lay person for driving when fatigued. Now, let’s take that same scenario but apply it to somebody driving 80,000 pounds of commercial vehicle going at highway speeds, 65 miles an hour, or maybe even an excess thereof. You wanna make sure that if you’re doing that, if you’ve chosen that to be your profession, and you’re gonna do that, you’re gonna earn a living doing that, the government federally as well as at the state level wants to ensure that you are alert, reasonably alert. And that’s why those time restrictions are there to ensure that to the extent we can prevent accidents due to fatigue, we’re going to ensure that the drivers do not exceed a certain amount of hours in a given timeframe, so that other individuals on the roadway or near the roadway are protected to the greatest extent possible from the dangers associated with driver fatigue.

Rob: Can we assume, Dan, some, I would assume, well, let me say this, I probably shouldn’t assume, but I would think most drivers, they don’t wanna risk their lives, they don’t wanna risk the lives of other people. In your experience, are you finding that there’s external pressure put on them maybe by the trucking companies to push up to those limits or even beyond those limits even when it’s not safe?

Dan: Certainly. Appropriate supervision and appropriate training will take care of an individual’s natural instinct to maybe push it a little bit. But what we find often is that it is a company culture. We oftentimes find that supervisors of drivers don’t have CDL licenses themselves, they’re not required to. As a result, they may be looking at a pre-trip inspection and have absolutely no idea what they’re supervising. No idea at all. That’s actually a common occurrence. It’s absolutely unfathomable that you would have a supervisor supervising something that he doesn’t know what it actually involves, and as a result cannot intervene if something is being done wrong. But that’s what you see. Companies that are built like that, it’s absolutely foreseeable that they’re going to try to push the envelope. And unfortunately, it’s not merely at risk to their own company or the drivers, it’s the person who is two lanes over in a passenger vehicle. It’s the individual who’s working at a highway construction zone that has reduced speed. Those are the types of individuals that oftentimes bear quite catastrophically the results of commercial driver fatigue.

Rob: Why would companies take those risks though? Why risk is it? Is it all just about the dollar?

Dan: Well, companies are…they go into business for purposes of making money. So, while it seems indelicate to state that these are all financially driven decisions, there’s really no other motivation. The only other alternative is to believe that the companies are sadistic, which I don’t believe. Instead, it’s merely to make as much money possible delivering loads. In order to deliver loads safely, you need to have a sufficient number of drivers, and they need to be abiding by all of the relevant federal regulations, all of the state laws, and all of the practices laid out in the CDL manual. That costs money. Alternatively, you can try to push the envelope, have less drivers, don’t spend adequate time doing pre-trip inspections, don’t spend adequate time planning effective safe routes, where you’re not necessarily driving in bad weather, or making left-hand turns in large 18 wheelers. Instead, try to make do with what you have and try to maximize the dollars. And with that, unfortunately, you will oftentimes have breaches of a reasonable degree of safety.

Rob: And have you seen in your experience that sometimes the attitude is, as long as we don’t get caught it’s okay?

Dan: Absolutely. I’ve seen that precise testimony from fleet managers. I took a deposition of a fleet manager involving a tractor trailer that was coming from New Jersey into Pennsylvania. And had that vehicle actually gotten on to Pennsylvania [inaudible 00:06:38], it would have been illegal, because its weight was too much in order to driving in Pennsylvania without a special permit, which it did not have. And the fleet manager testified that it’s illegal but only if you’re pulled over by a police officer. And then immediately after testifying to that effect, on videotape no less, he rethought what he said and said, “I would like to rephrase that. And yes, it’s illegal no matter what.” But that is the attitude. If you get caught, there’s a fine that you have to pay. And in the course of doing business, we can absorb that. The problem is not the fines from a personal injury lawyer perspective, it’s your fatigue, your lack of adherence to standards is going to cause catastrophic injury or death. And I’ve yet to meet somebody with a traumatic brain injury or paralysis, or someone who’s lost a family member who thinks that a fine is appropriate. They would do anything, an appropriate substitute I should say, they would do anything to get their family member back or get use of their legs back or restore full cognition. That’s the type of injuries that occur in a commercial vehicle case. Rarely are those injuries de minimus. Usually the results are catastrophic simply because of the enormous relative size of these vehicles, and the speed to which they’re traveling.

Rob: What’s your advice to drivers who are being pushed by the trucking companies to exceed limits, to drive when it’s not safe, to go past when they may be fatigued?

Dan: Ultimately, the driver is responsible for his or her load. And it’s like any other industry, if you’re being told by your supervisor or your boss to do something that you know is dangerous, it is no excuse to say, “I knew, I did it anyway.” You have every right to refuse to do something that you know is illegal or unreasonably dangerous. It may imperil your job security at that company, but what I would say to a truck driver if they were revealing that to me is, that company sooner rather than later is going to become embroiled in scandal. If you’re running a transportation company without adhering to regulations, standards, CDL manuals, it’s only a matter of time before that results in something catastrophic. This is not a situation where it may not happen, it’s going to happen. It’s just a matter of when. When you’re driving a commercial vehicle for any prolonged period of time, two, three hours, there are thousands of driver inputs that you’re putting into that vehicle, shifting, changing lanes, using the steering wheel, using the brakes, using the signals. All of those present an opportunity for catastrophe. And for every moment that you are experiencing fatigue, the likelihood of a catastrophe goes up considerably. It only takes one errant pull of the wheel, or one hard application of braking when unwarranted to Jackknife a tractor trailer or to have it drift into another lane. And again, to the extent somebody else is there, or somebody else is up ahead, the results again are just devastating.

Rob: Fascinating information, Dan. Thank you so much for taking some time to answer our questions today. I do appreciate it.

Dan: My pleasure.

Rob: That’s gonna do it for this episode of “Ask the Lawyer.” My guest has been Philadelphia attorney, Dan Sherry. Remember, if you want the best information or you wanna be able to choose a lawyer that lawyers choose, head over to askthelawyers.com Thanks for watching, everybody. I’m Rob Rosenthal with “AskTheLawyers.”