Trucks at Work
Fatigue ... and death

Fatigue ... and death

I don‘t remember it happening because I fell asleep at the wheel, but when I woke up we were in an accident.” -Candy Baldwin, as told to the Washington Post from her bed in Maryland Shock Trauma Center, following an accident on the Chesapeake Bay Bridge that left truck driver John Short dead.

Let me give you this scenario. A young truck driver (let‘s say 25 or 26, been driving for three years now) falls asleep at the wheel of his 80,000-pound rig and causes an accident, leaving a 57 year-old man dead - a man with a wife and kids.

The trucker has no record; he‘s a good kid, well liked by friends, co-workers, and family. His log book is clean, but he‘d been at a friend‘s wedding, stayed up most of the day and night, before going on duty at 3 a.m. Didn‘t get a lot of sleep - in fact, didn‘t sleep much at all, though he was off-duty for the required 10 hours.


(The Chesapeake Bay Bridge -- site of Sunday's tragic car-truck crash.)

The accident itself is front-page news - ties up weekend traffic on a major bridge for a whole day, leaving thousands of people stuck for hours, fuming in their cars - as it happens not 50 miles from the nation‘s capital.

What do you think happens next?

Several things you can count on: civil lawsuits by the dead man‘s family against the truck driver and his company, alongside manslaughter charges against the trucker from the state. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) would swoop in to perform an exhaustive safety audit of the company and there would be more press conferences than you can count by politicians, safety groups, etc., calling for more laws, stiffer penalties, and greater enforcement, covering the entire trucking industry in broad, brutal brushstrokes of negligence, incompetence, and other vitriolic prose.

OK then. Now let‘s flip it around.

Car driver, just 19 years old: up all night at her mother‘s wedding. Falls asleep at the wheel. Resulting accident leaves 57 year-old truck driver dead and traffic snarled for days. You know the accident I‘m talking about, too.


Now what happens? More importantly, what‘s not going to happen?

[First of all, give the kid credit. She admitted she fell asleep. And my heart goes out to her in a big way - not only is her body badly broken, not only does she face years of physical rehabilitation, she‘ll never ever forget that this crash killed somebody.]

First of all, there‘s no logbook to check. She‘s not required to have one. No rule says she must have 10 hours off duty before getting behind the wheel. (Not that the 10-hour rule would‘ve automatically made her well-rested and ready to drive - you can‘t legislate good sleep, just the way you can‘t legislate human behavior, though try as we might).

You also won‘t see FMCSA visiting her anytime soon. And public press conferences, by politicians and national safety groups, condemning her in harsh, provocative language? I sincerely (and hopefully) doubt it.

Here‘s the thing, though, and this is important. Fatigue caused this accident between the car and the truck - and fatigue is a far, far greater problem for car drivers than truckers.


(You just can't legislate good, restful sleep -- for truckers or car drivers.)

You may remember the FMCSA‘s exhaustive Large Truck Crash Causation Study published last year. Based on three years worth of study and a detailed examination of over 965 truck-car collisions, the feds found that car drivers caused 55% of those crashes. More importantly, however, they also discovered that on average car drivers we‘re TWICE as likely to be fatigued as truck drivers.

The study also found that human error was by far the leading cause of these crashes, ranked among the top eight factors for truckers and car drivers. But notice the huge differences in exactly what KINDS of human error are involved between the two groups:

Truck drivers:

1. Following too close

2. Made illegal maneuver

3. Inadequate surveillance

4. Traveling too fast for conditions

5. Inattention

6. Stop required

7. External distraction

8. Brake problems

Car drivers:

1. Illegal maneuver

2. Fatigue

3. Illness

4. Inattention

5. Internal distraction

6. Inadequate surveillance

7. Illegal drugs

8. Too fast for conditions

Is it not surprising that fatigue, illness, and illegal drug use are major issues in the crashes FMCSA studied among CAR DRIVERS ... yet not truck drivers? That maybe logbooks, medical qualifications and random drug testing might be needed for CAR DRIVERS today? It does make one wonder ...


It brings to mind something Jeffrey Loftus, a transportation safety technology specialist with FMCSA, said during PeopleNet‘s 6th annual User Conference last week: “Everyone is to blame in these crashes; the bottom line is, it‘s a shared responsibility.”

That‘s a truth, however, we‘re having a hard time recognizing in our driving culture.