On the Saturday after Thanksgiving in November 2012, Maryland resident Karen Babka and her daughter, Kaitlin Babka, were traveling east on I-70 in South Strabane Township in heavy holiday traffic when a tractor-trailer being piloted in the westbound lane by California driver Yevgeniy Bugreyev roared across the median, slammed into the Babkas’ car and killed them both.
Bugreyev may have fallen asleep before losing control of his vehicle, though his attorney later claimed he passed out due to fluctuations in his blood pressure. Ultimately, it’s a distinction without a difference – Bugreyev should not have been on the highway at that moment.
Let’s assume that Bugreyev did, in fact, nod out due to simple fatigue. If he momentarily drifted off to sleep, the accident would have to be added to the annual tally of highway deaths and injuries that authorities suspect are caused by drowsy truck drivers. Of 30,000 highway deaths every year – a number that has thankfully been dropping due to improvements in both roads and vehicles – trucks are involved in about 14 percent of them. There’s little consensus on how many of these accidents involve drivers who have fallen asleep because observers believe the problem is underreported and drivers are reluctant to admit that they were, to use the phrase, examining the backs of their eyelids when a mishap occurred. A study going back to 1990 by the National Transportation Safety Board found that fatigue was involved in truck accidents more frequently than alcohol or drugs.
New attention is being paid to the problem following the severe injuries sustained by comedian and television star Tracy Morgan on the New Jersey Turnpike June 7 when his van was hit by a Wal-Mart tractor-trailer whose driver admitted that he had not slept in over 24 hours. A passenger traveling with Morgan was killed. Despite this, some lawmakers are pressing forward with legislation that would put a hold on a part of new directive requiring that truck drivers rest for a minimum of 34 consecutive hours, including two nights from 1 a.m. to 5 a.m., before starting a new workweek that cannot now exceed 70 hours in duration. Trucking industry officials say that drivers should be afforded more flexibility. Independent drivers are particularly eager to log as much time on the road as possible because they are typically paid by the mile. But safety advocates counter that this would be a step backward and endanger other drivers, particularly as more and more vehicles clog the country’s byways. In light of recent calamities, their arguments are more persuasive.
As a result of the accident involving Morgan, New York Sen. Chuck Schumer is asking that a requirement that truck drivers log their hours electronically rather than manually be made law quickly.
Doing so would strengthen the verification process and help prevent records from being falsified. It was initially suggested that such devices be placed in trucks four years ago, but it’s been stalled on Capitol Hill. It’s time legislators acted on this.
When you step on an airplane, you sincerely hope that the pilot, the co-pilot and the rest of the flight crew are alert, robust and well rested.
And more often than not they are, thanks to rules that govern how often they can fly and how long they must rest before they take to the skies again. Given that we travel on highways far more often than we fly, and the chances of an accident there are so much greater, asking truck drivers to take regular breaks and get some shut-eye is not asking too much.