Accident fatality supports the need for hours-of-service reform Earlier this fall I received a request to investigate a workers' compensation claim that involved a fatally injured truck driver. The purpose of the investigation was to determine the root accident cause and assist the company in preventing such similar occurrences.
The accident occurred along a mostly vacant Interstate highway in the East, when the driver failed to react to a second rig that was entering the highway from an adjacent on-ramp. Instead of moving into the passing lane as the second truck merged onto the highway, the driver stayed his course and collided with the rear-end of the still-accelerating vehicle. The driver of the first truck was killed when his vehicle rolled down a steep embankment and burst into flames.
This driver worked for a large trucking company with a nationally recognized safety program and a staff of highly skilled professionals dedicated to raising the fleet's safety performance bar. In fact, earlier this year the company initiated a comprehensive campaign to eliminate hours-of-service violations, including extensive terminal audits and accountability for not complying with the rules.
Unfortunately, not everyone within the operation embraced the campaign with the same enthusiasm. An extensive terminal expansion had brought in many new people with a variety of attitudes about hours-of-service reform.
Take the case of the fatally injured driver, for example. He left his terminal around 6:00 a.m. to deliver a load some 200 miles away. After unloading, he called the terminal and was set up to load, haul and deliver a second load to a destination some 250 miles away. By 11:00 p.m., he had unloaded the second load, reloaded and was headed home to take a break and let his logbook catch up.
Although his logbook was burned in the accident, company officials estimate he was on duty for over 15 hours when the accident occurred. Even though he was within 50 miles of home, the downward fatigue escalator was more powerful than his ability to stay awake behind the wheel.
How did this accident happen? What caused the sequence of events that yielded such a catastrophic outcome? The answer lies in the dispatch sequence. Under pressure from customers, local load coordinators were anxious to deliver the freight as promised. The driver had a reputation for being a hard runner; he was not about to disappoint his dispatcher when he was offered the third load. Although company policy prohibits dispatching drivers with insufficient available hours, exceptions were apparently made.
As is so often the case, the ultimate dispatch decision was clouded by conflicting factors. Local operations personnel believed the most critical mission was the on-time delivery of freight. Fleet safety personnel believed the most critical mission was to protect the lives of their employees and the traveling public by enforcing hours-of-service rules.
This trucking company is experiencing the same internal conflict over hours-of-service reform that the entire industry is experiencing on a national basis. We've heard much rhetoric about the "flawed" DOT hours-of-service proposal. Critics say the proposal is "an ill-considered regulation that would have made our highways less safe, our industry less efficient and our economy less robust."
I urge you to take a close look at the fatigue management systems in place at your operation. Has your company implemented policies and accountability measures that ensure both adequate rest and compliance with existing hours-of-service rules?
My guess is that once you've accomplished that feat locally, coping with national hours-of-service reform will be an easier process.