Prescription and Over-the-Counter Drugs
Drivers of these large trucks are the most important aspect of trucking safety. Truckers are on the road for hours and hours on end, and are therefore more vulnerable to the challenges all of us face on the road.
While it is commonly thought that driver fatigue contributes the most to trucking accidents, the biggest problem is actually use of prescription and over-the-counter medications. According to a recent study by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, in accidents caused by driver error, 44% of them involved truckers who were taking prescription or over-the-counter medications.
There isn’t a single prescription or OTC medication without some side effects, and often the most common side effects—blurred vision, dizziness, confusion, drowsiness—are the ones that are most dangerous on the road. While there are federal regulations that attempt to minimize these occurrences, they are not always effective.
There are too many ways that truck drivers can get around the regulations, leaving other drivers and passengers on the road in greater danger. For instance, truckers are required to have medical certificate from a doctor certifying that they are fit to drive a commercial truck. But there are no uniform standards on how and by whom these exams are done. They are easily forged and often granted by a medical practitioner—this could be anyone from a doctor to a chiropractor to a nurse—who is willing to overlook the most fundamental requirements. And if one doctor won’t grant a medical certificate, truckers can easily ‘doctor shop’ and find another.
Truckers often lead strained and stressful lifestyles, turning to junk food on their long hours on the road. They then are more likely to struggle with obesity, diabetes, and sleep apnea. Sleep apnea is particularly dangerous because it leads to excessive sleepiness during waking hours, which is obviously extremely dangerous for truckers.
There are too many truck drivers on the road that are in poor health, or who are under the influence of prescription and OTC drugs that create extremely hazardous driving conditions. The consequences are disturbingly severe.
Similar to drug regulations, there are strict regulations pertaining to truck drivers and alcohol. Firstly, truck drivers with a Commercial Driver’s License can be charged with a DUI with a blood alcohol level of .04. Secondly, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration does not allow truck drivers to have had alcohol four hours prior to the beginning of their shifts.
But are these regulations effective? Do they keep truckers with alcohol in their systems off the roads? It is unfortunately too easy for a trucker that might have an alcohol problem to get around routine testing, especially because truckers usually know exactly when they will be tested. This allows them to adjust their behavior when it will enable them to stay on the roads.
In addition, it is remarkably easy to fake test results. Studies have shown the numerous methods truckers can use to ensure they have clean test results, from using fake identification to send someone else into the test, to using synthetic urine or clean-urine kits off the internet.
And while some trucking companies are implementing stricter tests that are harder to dupe, these tests (such as hair testing) have not yet become industry standards, and an individual who fails a test at one company can easily go to a less strict company and appear to be clean. In an industry that has an annual driver turnaround of 70 – 90%, stricter industry standards are desperately needed.
Anyone who has driven for long stretches of time knows how easily distracted one can become on the road. Truckers are subject to the same strains, but the consequences are much more dire. While a normal car weighs about 4,000 pounds, a truck weighs more than 80,000 pounds. The consequences of a truck driver’s every action is magnified in scope, and the simplest distraction can turn into a devastating accident.
According to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA), a distraction occurs “any time a driver diverts his/her attention from the driving task.” Distraction can take a variety of forms: eating while driving, talking or texting on a cell phone, smoking, or adjusting the radio.
Cell phones are particularly dangerous since they involve almost all of the senses: they require a driver to avert his eyes, to listen, to manually operate the phone, and to mentally disengage from the act of driving.
Another distraction that is quite common is a driver’s unfamiliarity with his route. Truck drivers find themselves in new cities and towns all the time, and unless he has planned and familiarized himself with his route, he will find his attention split between driving and trying to find his way.
The FMCSA’s Large Truck Crash Causation Study revealed that 10% of truck crashes occur as a result of distraction. Another study estimates that the numbers are actually much higher, and that 80% of truck crashes had driver distraction as a contributing cause.
Distraction can lead to a driver gazing at what is happening on the road without actually seeing it. Because the truck is so big and takes so much time to respond to the driver’s action, driver attention is critical.
Federal regulations are in place to reduce fatigue related accidents as much as possible. The FMCSA has instated hours of service regulations that all truck drivers must comply with. There are three maximum duty limits that must be followed at all times:
- A driver may be on-duty for 14 consecutive hours if he has been off-duty for 10 or more consecutive hours. Naps or breaks count towards the 14 consecutive hours.
- During the 14 consecutive hours that a driver can be on-duty, a driver is only allowed to be driving for 11 total hours.
- There are also limits on how many hours a driver can be on-duty in a 7 or 8-day period. A driver can not drive after being on duty for 60 hours in 7 consecutive days, and 70 hours in 8 consecutive days.
These regulations exist to help ensure that truck drivers are not pushed by themselves or their employers to work beyond what is considered safe. Fatigue impairs a driver’s performance, and we all depend upon a truck driver’s performance to keep us safe on the roads. A fatigued driver will experienced the lulls we all feel at certain times of the day even more markedly than a well-rested driver.
It is not only during the last hours of a driving shift that a driver may find himself fatigued; it is also during the first hour, when a driver may still be drowsy from a nap or a night’s sleep.
Fatigue can affect a driver’s response time, memory, attention, mood, and judgment. Being awake for 18 hours is equivalent to having a blood alcohol level of .08, which is considered legally intoxicated.
If you were involved in an accident with a truck driver, an attorney can take the necessary steps to secure the information needed to prove driver fatigue. This can be done by checking the company’s hours of service logs, but you should contact an attorney as soon as you can, because these logs are often deleted after a certain amount of time has passed. Your attorney might also be able to find useful evidence by checking a driver’s trip tickets or bills of lading (documents that accompany deliveries). This evidence can lead to establishment of driver liability as well as the company’s negligence.