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How do federal regulations try to prevent truck drivers from driving while fatigued?

Fatigued drivers cause untold damage on our nation's roadways every year. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, police attribute fatal crashes to drowsy driving about 2.4 percent of the time, which translates to hundreds of fatalities each year. Nearly 800 people were killed in fatigued-driver crashes in 2017 -- and that may be a low estimate.

While any driver can suffer from fatigue, the problem is more serious among commercial drivers. For one thing, their vehicles are much more massive than passenger cars, which vastly increases the potential damage in a crash. For another, commercial drivers are under financial pressure to drive as long and with as few breaks as possible.

What stops fatigued commercial drivers from harming others?

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration regulates commercial trucking, and one of the ways they have done so is through "hours of service" rules. These rules limit the amount of time a commercial driver can spend behind the wheel without a break.

The FMCSA enforces these rules primarily by inspecting logbooks. Personal injury attorneys play an important role in enforcing these rules, too, by forcing drivers and trucking companies to pay for the damage they cause when they violate the hours of service rules or other federal regulations.

There are three main groups of hours of service rules, broken up by what kind of load the hauler is carrying: passengers, property and agricultural commodities.

Drivers carrying passengers

The simplest rule for commercial buses, motor coaches and other passenger vehicles is that the driver may only drive for 10 hours after eight consecutive hours off duty. At the same time, there is a rolling 15-hour limit, as well. These limits are accompanied by an overall limit of 60 hours over the course of 7 consecutive days, or 70 total hours over the course of 8 consecutive days.

Drivers carrying non-agricultural goods

The rules are different for drivers who haul non-agricultural property. These drivers may only go 11 hours straight after 10 consecutive hours off duty. They are also limited to an overall 14 hours even if they take additional breaks that are shorter than 10 hours.

Unless they are subject to exceptions, drivers hauling property may only drive if 8 hours or less have passed since their last off-duty break of at least 30 minutes. They must also comply with the same 60/70-hour limit over the course of 7 or 8 consecutive days that we discussed above.

Drivers carrying agricultural commodities

Surprisingly, there is a large exception to the hours of service rules that applies only to drivers who haul farm products and live animals. This is, in part, because live animals cannot be left alone for eight to 10 hours while the driver rests.

Both drivers carrying agricultural commodities and those on their way to a pickup are exempt from the hours of service rules when they are within 150 air miles of the source of those commodities. As long as they remain within 150 air miles of the source, neither their driving time nor their rest periods are regulated. Once they leave the 150-air mile zone, the rules for carrying other types of goods apply.

The rules are complex and difficult to follow

Unfortunately, the rules are hard for drivers to understand, which contributes to them being hard to enforce. Regardless of whether drivers understand the hours of service limitations, however, they can still be held accountable if they are too fatigued to drive and end up causing an accident. Personal injury attorneys frequently cite noncompliance with hours of service rules when demonstrating that a commercial driver was too tired to work.

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