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Truckers Are Caught Up in a Battle Over Regulations

August 23, 2000

Imagine it's 2 a.m. and for 10 hours you've been behind the wheel of a 100,000-pound tanker truck loaded with gasoline. Exhausted, you can hardly focus on the road as you travel through dense fog along the interstate.

That's not an uncommon scenario for long-haul truck drivers. Racing to meet tight delivery schedules and working overtime to pay bills, truckers are sometimes pushed to the point of being dangerously fatigued.

And too often, their long days on the road end in tragedy. Truckers who doze off at the wheel account for about 750 deaths a year and 20,000 injuries, according to government estimates.

In all, U.S. accidents involving large trucks killed more than 56,000 people between 1988 and 1998--a toll rivaling the number of American deaths in the Vietnam War. About 1.45 million drivers and passengers were injured in those accidents, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's most recent data.

Of course, not all such accidents are the fault of the trucks and their operators. Drivers of passenger vehicles need to accept responsibility, too. Their often aggressive driving and increased speeds on our highways only make it more difficult for large trucks to avoid accidents. Cutting in and out of traffic around trucks is extremely reckless.

Nevertheless, against the backdrop of the government's sobering statistics, truck safety is the subject of new regulations being proposed at the federal and state levels. U.S. traffic officials are seeking to limit the number of hours a trucker can drive in a 24-hour period.

Interestingly, a bill offered in the California Legislature recently sought to increase the hours that gasoline tanker drivers could log in one day.

At the federal level, the Department of Transportation has proposed rules that would limit truckers to 12 hours behind the wheel in a 24-hour period. Under current federal work rules, drivers can log as many as 16 hours under certain circumstances.

The department, through its Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, also seeks to require electronic recorders in long-haul trucks to monitor compliance with so-called hours-of-service regulations--and prevent truckers from altering their paper logbooks to underreport the number of hours they have driven.

The motor carrier agency, established last year to oversee truck safety, aims to cut the number of big rig-related deaths in half by 2010.

Truckers and their trade groups generally oppose reducing driving hours, arguing that such strictures would hurt drivers financially even as they struggle for business amid fierce competition and high fuel prices. A reduction in hours would actually compromise safety, the industry says, because it would require the hiring of tens of thousands of new, less-experienced drivers.

In addition to being expensive and potentially unreliable, the truckers say, electronic monitors would represent an unwarranted level of scrutiny that infringes on drivers' freedoms.


The bill in the state Legislature, sponsored by the California Trucking Assn., would have increased from 10 to 12 the hours that gasoline tanker drivers could work in a 24-hour period. By comparison, other truckers in California are permitted 15-hour work shifts, with up to 12 of those hours behind the wheel.

Though the measure, Assembly Bill 1321, was tabled by the Senate Transportation Committee two weeks ago for further study, safety advocates fear that it could be reintroduced next year. They argue that any increase in hours would put California motorists at greater risk for catastrophic accidents involving gasoline tankers.

"It's insane and it flies in the face of research" linking long hours and driver fatigue to collisions involving large trucks, says Michael Scippa, executive director of Citizens for Reliable and Safe Highways, or CRASH.

"It's a blatant grab for higher productivity at the public's expense," says Scippa, whose group is based in Tiburon, near San Francisco. Increasing hours of service for drivers hauling gasoline--a volatile hazardous material on already congested California highways--"is a prescription for physical and environmental disaster," he says.

Although tanker truck crashes represent a small percentage of large-truck accidents, these crashes often involve rollovers, deadly fires and explosions and gasoline spills.

"When these things do crash--which isn't often, thank God--there are horrible fatalities and roads are tied up for hours, sometimes days, because there is a toxic element introduced," Scippa says.

Assemblyman Brett Granlund (R-Yucaipa), author of AB 1321, disagrees. "I believe this bill will increase safety because it will give a driver more time to resist fatigue . . . [to] take a break and make his trip," he said.

"Instead of being pushed, the driver won't feel the need to speed. With two extra hours, he'll be less likely to be going 75 to 80 miles an hour to stay under a timeline he can't meet," says Granlund, himself a former truck driver.

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