The challenges of a long haul trucker: another 4 AM Spaghetti Junction truck crash

Most long haul truck drivers are decent, hardworking folks who chose truck driving as a way to support their families even though it keeps them on the road away from home most of the time.

At my childhood home in rural Alabama, a lot of my friends’ dads were over the road truck drivers because it was one of the few ways a guy living there, without a college education, could make enough to keep the family in the rural community they loved.

Paid by the mile and under pressure from employers and shippers to make “just in time deliveries,” truck drivers look for ways to cut the time from pickup to delivery points. Over the years, truck drivers have told me – both confidentially over coffee at truck stops and Waffle Houses and reluctantly in depositions around the country — of how they are pushed to get the load there despite speed limits and fatigue.

Truck drivers have told me of arriving to pick up a load at, for example, 5 PM, the shipper not having it ready to go until 8 PM, and insisting that it must be delivered a thousand miles away by the next morning. The truck driver knows that while legally he can’t be fired for refusing, he may not get future work if he doesn’t comply.

Time pressure on truck drivers often results in driving through the night when traffic is less than during the day. You may have seen 18 wheelers barreling through the night at or above the 70 MPH speed limit. Dissecting their timelines after bad stuff happened, I’ve often found they were beyond the limits of human stamina while pushing to make an early morning delivery.

In one case, a trucker had driven from Ohio to Atlanta, back to Ohio, and was almost back to Atlanta when he struck a family returning from vacation. He had had only a couple of brief naps on a roadside in West Virginia and in a shipper’s parking lot in Ohio.

Often we see incidents where a trucker had driven through the night, then hit the Atlanta freeway system in early morning when dead tired and reaction times are diminished due to fatigue. Then, when bad things happen, their employers’ insurance companies try to keep the jury from hearing about how it was the company’s policies and practices that put the driver in the position of being dead tired behind the wheel.

This morning at 4 AM, a tractor trailer jackknifed in Spaghetti Junction at I-85 and I-285 on the north side of Atlanta. It punched through a concrete barrier and blocked all traffic in the area for hours. Blessedly, there are no reports of injuries. I don’t know what happened, but it appears to fit the common pattern of a trucker driving through the night and hitting metro area before dawn.

In interstate trucking, there are national standards governing driving time and fatigue. There has been a lot of work on fatigue management, confirming the common sense conclusion that working long daily and weekly hours on a continuing basis is associated with chronic fatigue, a high risk of crashes, and a number of serious chronic health conditions in drivers.

I have certainly experienced severe fatigue in working long hours as a lawyer – especially the year I was also State Bar president – but I was not piloting an 80,000 pound truck through traffic.

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations include:

-          “No driver shall operate a commercial motor vehicle, and a motor carrier shall not require or permit a driver to operate a commercial motor vehicle, while the driver’s ability or alertness is so impaired, or so likely to become impaired, through fatigue, illness, or any other cause, as to make it unsafe for him/her to begin or continue to operate the commercial motor vehicle.” (Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations Section 392.3)

-          The hours of service rule in interstate trucking sets specific limits to limit fatigue:

  • 11-hour daily driving limit and 14-hour work day limit.
  • 70 hours maximum work week
  • After reaching 70 hour weekly limit, must rest for 34 consecutive hours, including at least two nights when their body clock demands sleep the most – from 1-5 a.m.
  • Truck drivers must get a 30-minute break during the first eight hours of a shift. (Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations Section 395.3)

-          Truck drivers must maintain logs recording their work and driving hours.  Traditionally those have been on paper and easily finagled to look legal despite driving way over legal hours. I have spent a lot of time deconstructing those with the mass of electronic time-stamped records that are generated in the course of travel. There is a lot of effort now to move to electronic logs which would require a lot more sophistication to falsify

-          Legally, no one can fire, discipline or discriminate against a trucker for refusing to operate a truck in violation of these rules. But it happens anyway. (49 U.S.C. 31105)

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Ken Shigley is a board certified trial lawyer based in Atlanta who has been trying cases before Georgia juries since 1977. He is past president of the 45,000 member State Bar of Georgia and chair-elect of the American Association for Justice Motor Vehicle, Highway and Premises Liability Section.