How Often Do Truck Drivers Have to Take Breaks?

When you’re tired and sleep-deprived, your brain doesn’t work properly.  You struggle to process information, forget fine details, make judgment errors, and have slowed physical reactions to your environment.  Fatigue and exhaustion can be dangerous in any situation – especially when tired drivers get behind the wheel of a 30,000 pound vehicle, causing a serious or fatal truck accident.

How Often Does Fatigued Driving Cause Truck Accidents?

Like many industries, the commercial trucking industry is heavily regulated by the federal government.  In particular, truckers and other commercial drivers are subject to hours of service (HOS) regulations, which mandate rest periods while limiting the number of consecutive hours a trucker may drive.

These regulations are enforced by a branch of the Department of Transportation called the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA).  They were introduced in an effort to combat a widespread phenomenon called “trucker fatigue,” where truckers cause devastating auto accidents because they are asleep or impaired by exhaustion.  The FMSCA openly acknowledges that “long daily and weekly hours are associated with an increased risk of crashes” – an effect which has been documented extensively.

In July of 2007, the FMSCA Office of Research and Analysis published a brief on a large truck crash causation study.  The study found that driver fatigue was a factor in 18,000 truck accidents (13% of accidents) documented during the 33-month study period, making fatigued driving the seventh most common factor in accidents resulting in deaths or injuries.  (To put this number into greater perspective, the leading factor was brake problems, affecting 41,000 trucks.  Surprisingly, DUI was actually the least common factor, present in 1,000 accidents.)

Alarming as they are, these numbers are probably too conservative.  The FMSCA has stated that “it is known that many drivers drive while fatigued, but accurate estimates are not available.”

While drivers who break shift limit rules should be held accountable for their actions, the carriers themselves also contribute to the problem.  It is certainly telling that in 16,000 accidents – or 10% of the crashes covered by the study period – drivers “felt under work pressure from [the] carrier.”  Since the trucking industry supports the vast majority of America’s transportation sector as a whole, the issue of drivers bending to economic pressure is unlikely to change any time soon.

This problem has also been acknowledged by the FMCSA, which stated in one report that “HOS regulations that attempt to reduce fatigue are highly controversial and widely violated.”  Let’s take a closer look at what these HOS regulations are – at least theoretically – supposed to ensure.

driver fatigue

FMSCA Hours of Service Regulations for Truckers

The FMSCA’s HOS regulations apply to most commercial vehicles you see on the road.  The drivers of semi-trailer trucks and other commercial vehicles must comply with HOS regulations if their vehicle:

  • Weighs at least 10,001 pounds. (Most big rigs are hauling anywhere from 18,000 to 46,000 pounds, according to users on one Truckers Report forum.)
  • Is “used or designed” to carry at least 16 passengers, not for compensation.
  • Is “used or designed” to carry at least nine passengers, for compensation.
  • Is carrying hazardous materials “in a quantity requiring placards.” (In other words, trucks with warning signs about hazardous materials on board.)

The HOS regulations have a few different components, which vary slightly depending on whether the driver is transporting people or objects.  In either case, drivers must comply with all regulations which apply to them and their vehicle.  These regulations are described below:

  • Truckers carrying property can drive for up to 11 hours after having 10 consecutive hours off. This is called the 11-hour driving limit.
    • The driving limit is shortened to 10 hours for commercial drivers who are carrying passengers (such as bus drivers). Drivers who are transporting passengers must take eight consecutive hours off-duty.
  • Truckers carrying property cannot be on-duty for more than 14 hours at a time, even if they just had a 10-hour break as specified by the 11-hour driving limit. The 14-hour period may not be lengthened by going off-duty.  This is called the 14-hour limit.
    • The 14-hour limit is increased to 15 hours for drivers carrying passengers.
  • Drivers who were carrying passengers are subject to a 60-/70-hour limit, which means they cannot drive after spending 60 to 70 hours on-duty during a span of seven to eight consecutive days. These limits can vary, within the described ranges, depending on when the carrier starts a 24-hour period.
    • This provision also applies to truckers transporting property. However, enforcement of the old “34-hour restart rule,” which affected restarting the 60-/70-hour clock, was suspended with the Consolidated and Further Continuing Appropriations Act of 2015.
  • Regardless of whether a trucker is transporting people or property, if he or she is using a sleeper berth, then at least eight hours must be spent resting in the berth.
    • Drivers transporting property must spend an additional two hours off-duty or in the sleeper berth.

If you were injured in a truck accident in Maryland, or if your loved one was wrongfully killed, the attorneys of Whitney, LLP may be able to help.  We will consult with experts to determine whether the truck suffered from brake system defects or other malfunctions, and will dig through the trucker’s logbook and other safety records to determine whether any HOS violations may have been committed.

To set up a free, completely private case assessment with our experienced personal injury lawyers, call Whitney, LLP at (410) 583-8000.  We handle cases throughout Maryland.