Over the last several years, the US trucking industry has been under extreme pressure. Faced with rising insurance costs and a shortage of workers, many carriers have gone out of business, and this has left existing carriers in a bind.
Without enough workers to meet delivery demands, a growing number are forcing drivers onto the road for longer and longer periods. But what happens when one of those overextended drivers is involved in a crash? Who is liable for the resulting injuries and damages?
The Struggle For Sleep
Among all causes of trucking-related accidents, not getting enough sleep is one of the most common underlying causes. Sleep deprived truckers take to the road, only to fall asleep, lose focus, or respond to slowly behind the wheel, and like other industry issues, this one is only getting worse. That’s because, recently, the Trump administration took steps to loosen maximum hour laws.
Prior to the changes, truckers were limited to 11 consecutive hours of driving within a 14-hour window before being required to leave the road for ten hours. Drivers on the road for over eight hours were required to take a 30-minute break before hitting the eight-hour mark. New regulations would extend the maximum driving time to 14 hours and increase the maximum distance between breaks. One major factor that these new guidelines fail to take into account, however, is how much more dangerous tired drivers are to themselves and to others.
Tired Truck Drivers Drive Accident Rates
Increasing the amount of time drivers are allowed to spend on the road doesn’t mean that carriers should allow their individual operators to drive for that long – and it certainly doesn’t mean drivers should remain on the road for 14 hours at a stretch when we know that drivers underreport fatigue and that accident rates increase the longer drivers are on the road. With that in mind, carriers need to ask themselves a key question: if they encourage drivers to operate up to the new limits, or even to push the existing ones, are they liable for any resulting accidents? According to expert truck accident attorneys, they very well might be.
When a truck accident occurs, drivers often come under scrutiny first, but according to Fine, Farkash, and Parlapiano, companies may be liable if their employees cause a truck accident – and even more so if driver activity logs suggest they’ve been spending too much time behind the wheel. There’s also new technology that can detect when drivers are tired and alert them so that they can pull off the road. Truck companies may soon be expected to invest in this technology or face higher insurance rates.
Shifting Operations, Liability?
Because trucking is a dangerous industry, even when drivers are well-rested, trucking companies are facing steadily increasing insurance costs to cover potential accidents, and many are collapsing under the weight. Many trucking companies have closed down, and others have shifted to work exclusively with independent owner-operators. By choosing owner-operators, trucking companies are able to shift liability and reduce their costs, pushing them all off onto those operators. Because the drivers are independent contractors, all responsibility for major accidents also fall onto them.
One of the biggest problems with shifting operations to eliminate company costs and liability is that it also means companies don’t have much control or reliability in terms of their workforce.
To remedy this, there’s also a growing interest in exit-to-exit transfer systems relying on drivers for last-mile delivery. This could make driving more appealing as a career because it would be less physically strenuous and dangerous and it would eliminate the demand for long-haul drivers, where the shortage is most significant.
Trucking companies don’t want to cause accidents, and they certainly don’t want to be liable for fatigued drivers, but companies are trapped in a catch-22. Unless they can undo the damage the system has already incurred – shortening routes, decreasing fatigue, and generally making the job safer – they won’t be able to recruit enough workers to meet demand. Until then, they’ll keep pushing workers to the limit, compounding the problem and putting everyone at risk.