Sophie’s Choice of Safety Funding
As mosquito season heats up, the buzz is on the Zika virus, which has made its way to the United States. Although the virus causes only mild illness to most infected people, pregnant women face the frightening prospect of infecting their babies, resulting in a severe brain defect called microcephaly. Already Texas has reported 35 cases of Zika infection, a number that is likely to grow without aggressive intervention.
So what does the Zika virus have to do with tractor-trailer safety?
If your first response is absolutely nothing, you are in theory correct. But, unfortunately, once again politics trumps common sense when you’re talking about public safety.
A new spending bill pits Zika intervention against a crucial trucking safety measure. Whether Zika prevention is funded rides directly on whether service of hours rules are relaxed. If Obama signs the legislation, the country will have the money to stop this devastating virus from spreading. However, by signing the bill, rules that keep sleepy drivers off the road will be suspended.
Hours of Service Rules Are Vital to Roadway Safety
Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) Hours of service (HOS) rules limit driving and work hours and mandate rest breaks for commercial vehicle and bus drivers.
Currently, that includes capping the seven-day workweek to 60 hours or an eight-day workweek to 70 hours. Tractor-trailer drivers can only drive up to the 14th hour after coming on duty, and bus drivers are permitted to drive only until the 15th hour after starting the workday. 18-wheeler drivers are also allowed 11 hours of drive time after having at least 10 hours off duty and bus drivers are permitted to driver for 10 hours after eight hours of time off.
The new ill-advised legislation would cap the workweek at more than 80 hours and permit 73 hours of drive time within the workweek.
This isn’t the first time Congress has held vital HOS regulations hostage. The 2014 appropriations bill blocked enforcement of HOS rules. Obama had no choice but to sign the bill to avoid a government shutdown.
Trucking lobbies have doggedly fought tightening of FMCSA rules for years. According to the Huffington Post, “The industry believes advocates are inventing problems.”
Nothing could be further from the truth. Driver fatigue is considered a leading factor in the almost 4,000 18-wheeler crash fatalities. Studies demonstrate that sleep deprivation causes cognitive impairment, slowed response and inattention, and may lead the driver to nod off at the wheel. During my 35 years in personal injury practice, I have witnessed time and time again the toll of sleepy big-rig drivers on public safety.
Congress needs to let FMCSA do its job of implementing and enforcing regulations that are based upon the public interest and sound science. We should not have to make the heartbreaking choice between basic roadway safety and the lives of countless families facing the threat of a debilitating virus.