Driver fatigue: a potentially important issue in truck accident litigation

Driver fatigue is a particularly concerning problem among truck drivers. Federal law seeks to address the issue in the Hours of Service rules. When truck drivers harm others as a result of violating these and other truck safety rules, they need to be held accountable.

Truck accidents can occur for a variety of reasons, including inclement weather, driver error, roadway congestion, and unsafe roadway design. Another common cause of truck accidents is failure to abide by state and federal truck safety rules. Safety regulations encompass nearly every aspect of trucking, including vehicle operation, maintenance, cargo securement, drug and alcohol testing of drivers, route planning, carriage of hazardous materials, and so on.

One important area of regulation is driver fatigue or drowsy driving. Although drowsy driving can happen with any driver, it is a special concern among commercial truck drivers not only because of the long hours they spend on the road and industry pressure to maximize productivity, but also because of the significant damage large trucks can do when they crash.

Looking at the Hours of Service Rules

It is with the purpose of preventing driver fatigue that the federal Hours of Service rules are in place. These rules apply to all commercial motor vehicles meeting certain weight and carriage specifications. Both property- and passenger-carrying drivers are bound by the rules, though the specific terms differ. Below is a brief summary of the rules for property-carrying drivers:

  • No driving for more than 11 hours after 10 consecutive hours of duty
  • No driving after the 14th hour on duty
  • Required rest break of at least 30 minutes after 8 hours on duty
  • No driving after 60/70 hours on duty over 7/8 days after taking at least 34 consecutive hours off duty
  • Drivers who use a sleeper berth are still required to take 10 consecutive hours off duty.

In recent years, the Hours of Service rules have received a fair amount of attention due to high profile accidents involving the issue of driver fatigue, and because the trucking industry was recently successful in eliminating a rule it claimed was harming driver productivity and not improving highway safety. That rule required truckers to take their 34-hour restart rest period on two consecutive nights between certain hours, but this rule is no longer in effect.

Failure to follow safety regulations as a basis for liability

Truck drivers are required to remain in compliance with the Hours of Service rules at all times, and employers are obligated to help ensure their employees are following these rules. In some cases, truck drivers are solely responsible for their failure to comply, but there are also circumstances where employers pressure their drivers to violate the rules, or they may make burdensome demands on their drivers that lead them to break the rules. In some cases, drivers and employers may tamper with records to make it look like they were in compliance when they really were not.

Whatever the case may be in terms of the details of non-compliance, truck accident victims can use violations of the Hours of Service rules to help establish liability in their case when driver fatigue is a cause of the accident. Building a strong case requires knowing how to obtain the proper records and how to apply the Hours of Service rules to trucking itineraries.

The importance of working with experienced legal counsel

Driver fatigue is only one potential cause of trucking accidents, even if it is an important one. Whatever the cause of a truck accident might be, it is critical to work with an experienced attorney to identify potentially liable parties and to gather the best possible evidence to establish liability. Obtaining solid evidence to sustain truck accident claims is not always easy, but skilled legal counsel can help ensure a truck accident victim has a fighting chance of holding negligent and reckless truckers accountable.

Keywords: Truck accidents, driver fatigue