In 2013, the most recent year for which finalized statistics are available, 3,541 truck-related wrecks killed 3,964 people – an increase of 17.3 percent in just four years since the recession. In 2014, the number of deaths resulting from truck accidents was down slightly, but the total number of crashes and injuries increased. When the recession began in 2008, profit margins for shippers shrank and bankruptcies rose, prompting a desperate industry to step up its lobbying effort. Today, this lobbying has led to methodical and substantial changes in the trucking industry, leading to higher profits for companies, but at the expense of highway safety.
Much of this congressional wave of disputes began with a debate over sleep apnea, a common disorder that causes airway closures and interrupted breathing, leading to potentially perilous levels of fatigue and exhaustion for drivers. In April 2012, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, which regulates the trucking industry, floated a proposal that would have required overweight truckers to get checked for sleep apnea. The industry reacted strongly, with some drivers coming forward to claim there was no evidence that sleep apnea raised the risk of crashes, while others alleged the proposal was a scheme to enrich sleep doctors. Independent truckers understand that treatment can take them off the road for a month or more and can cost thousands of dollars for people with inadequate or no health insurance. After just a week of backlash, the agency withdrew it, claiming it was published in error. In response to this brief proposal from the FMCSA however, industry lobbyists approached allies in Congress to write a law that would require the agency to follow the longer, more cumbersome formal rulemaking process, which can take years, requires even more extensive input from the public and industry, and often triggers long legal battles. The bill passed with little to no opposition.
Another example came about in July 2013, when the FMCSA enacted a regulation modifying an existing rule that says drivers must take 34 hours off after they hit certain maximum time limits working and driving. The new restriction mandated that truckers include two nights in that break, with no driving between 1 a.m. and 5 a.m. The new rule effectively cut the maximum hours drivers could work from 82 per week to 70. Industry representatives were again livid, but got their way in late 2014 when Sen. Susan Collins of Maine tacked on a provision temporarily barring FMCSA from spending any money to enforce its new rule and requiring additional study of the issue to an unwieldy spending bill that needed to pass in order to avoid government shutdown. In 2016, the length of this bar was extended even further, stalling the new sleep rules even longer.
Trucking industry lobbyists have the kind of access to decision-makers that safety advocates can only imagine, and in 2016 they have aimed for even more tack-on provisions. They have suggested that trucking firms could reduce labor costs by hiring lower-paid drivers, younger than 21 and as young as 18. One provision includes a measure that would raise the federal limit to 33 feet for each trailer, forcing all states to accept them. Carrying more with each rig means greater efficiency, lower cost, and more profit, but leads to more wear and tear on highways, weigh station and facility renovations, and crash fatality rates.
These are just some of many examples of the backdoor approach the trucking industry and legislators are utilizing to get around the standard safety restrictions that most Americans support. Attempts to lengthen driving hours, increase truck weight and length, and decrease minimum driver ages all share one common trait: they make highways less safe and could lead to massive increases in accidents. The trucking industry is trying to do pass all of these measures in a sweeping and secretive fashion. If they are successful, these changes would amount to the most significant overhaul of highway safety rules in decades.
Benny Agosto, Jr. is a partner at Abraham, Watkins, Nichols, Agosto, Aziz & Stogner in Houston, Texas. For over 60 years, Abraham Watkins has successfully represented injured people and families who fall victim to catastrophes. Our attorneys have the knowledge, experience and resources necessary to obtain just compensation their clients. For more information, please contact the office of Benny Agosto, Jr. at Abraham, Watkins, Nichols, Agosto, Aziz & Stogner, by letter at 800 Commerce Street, Houston, Texas 77002, or by phone at (713) 222-7211.