As a trial lawyer representing injury victims in trucking accident cases in Georgia, I’m always on the lookout for medications affecting driver alertness.  Another suspect medication has been added to the list.

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration issued a warning Thursday on the anti-smoking drug Chantix, advising medical examiners "to not qualify anyone currently using this medication for commercial motor vehicle licenses." Chantix, made by Pfizer, Inc., was attacked in a study by a non-profit group on Wednesday for possible links to seizures, dizziness, heart irregularity, diabetes and more than 100 accidents. The U.S. Department of Transportation warned all of its agencies almost immediately after seeing the report which reported that Chantix was linked to 988 serious events in the last quarter of 2007.

For more information, see this article by Alicia Mundy and Avery Johnson of the Wall Street Journal.

While my trucking litigation law practice is in Atlanta, Georgia, I know that long haul trucking safety is not just an American issue.  With the long distances between populations centers in Australia, all the challenges facing American truckers are big deals there too.  Driver fatigue, for example, is every bit as big a problem for Aussie "truckies" as for American truckers.

At the Australian Trucking Convention this week in Canberra, which includes the ATA Safety SummitFleetSafe is exhibiting a range of trucking safety technologies, including:

  •  video based event recorders
  • in-vehicle black box monitoring systems
  • trailer reversing cameras
  • wireless CCTV systems
  • electronic tire inspection tools
  • RFID tire tracking and fuel management systems.

A FleetSafe spokesman said, “Safety is great for business. Safe working conditions mean reduced costs associated with accidents and down time which ultimately increases efficiency and profit. In the transport industry safety means more than simply compliance. It is about creating a culture of safety that saves the lives of drivers and other people on the roads. These are issues that affect us all.”

As a Georgia lawyer representing people who are hurt in trucking accidents – and the families of those who are killed – I see too many cases where it appeared that a truck driver was deeply fatigued, was over the legal hours of service, and had a paper log that was not accurate.

A study by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration showed 13% of large truck drivers were fatigued at the time of an accident. Of the 141,000 estimated crashes, that’s 18,000 fatigued truck drivers causing crashes. According to a report by Brian Shapleigh at KJCT television in Grand Junction, Colorado, the Colorado Motor Carriers Association supports installation of on-board computers to track driving hours. Many in the trucking industry, however, oppose any such requirement. 

The spokesman for the CMCA was quoted as saying truckers "need to go above and beyond actually what most drivers are" because of the size of the vehicle their driving.

Interstate motor carriers and their drivers are required to make and maintain logs showing the driver’s hours of operation, activities and locations of stops. The potential for abuse is so legendary that paper logs are often referred to as "comic books." 

Many truck drivers have told me, off the record, of the impossible pressure on them from carriers and shippers to make legally impossible delivery schedules. In one recent case, a truck driver confessed to me in his deposition that he had destroyed log pages for several previous days and replaced them with pages showing he was "off duty" and falsified the log for the trip he was on, so that he would look legal if stopped. In fact, he had been driving for 20 of the previous 24 hours — double the legal limit at the time — when he ran over a family and killed one of the children.

As reported by Robert L. Mitchell in ComputerWorld, electronic driver logs, also known as electronic on-board recorders (EOBR), do away with paper logbooks. The devices typically include a screen and a keyboard where the driver can input activity. That data is matched to a GPS device and vehicle sensors that continuously monitor the vehicle’s location and operation and can transmit that data back to the carrier’s operations center.  It’s impossible to fudge the numbers. A driver can’t claim he’s resting when the truck is moving.

But carriers make money by delivering the maximum number of loads in the minimum time. Enforcing hours-of-service rules more tightly could reduce per-truck revenues — and profitability — if drivers are breaking the rules. Some drivers complain that with the current per-mile compensation levels, they can’t make a living without bending the rules. Adopting EOBRs not only might reduce revenue per truck, but also could require an increase in driver compensation.

But when a carrier adopts electronic driver logs and other safety- and performance-related technologies it may use technology to competitive advantage to reduce costs and improve profitability. A carrier is able to more efficiently schedule its fleet when it can better track the number of hours its drivers are available.

Requiring EOBRs would force carriers to move forward in lock step, achieving safety goals without putting any carrier at a competitive disadvantage. Despite industry resistance, that is the direction the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration should be heading.

But if EOBRs are required, they should be tamper proof.  There is much history of falsified driver logs, and deactivation of other electronic recording devices, and GPS system downloads in formats subject to manipulation. In order for the EOBR data to be trustworthy, the systems must be tamper proof.

Here’s an intriguing video about the problem of side underride and the lack of side underride guards on trailers in the US. In viewing this, imagine what happens when a driver comes upon a tractor-trailer pulling out of a side road or driveway at night at highway speed. I showed this at a trucking litigation seminar in New Orleans last Saturday, and several people asked where they could get copies.

This week in several states, the Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance (CVSA) and the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) are sponsoring “Operation Safe Driver.” This involves increased enforcement roadside enforcement on commercial motor vehicle rules, including fatigued drivers, seatbelts, etc., and educate non-commercial drivers about sharing the road with trucks.

Unfortunately, there can never be enough enforcement officers to effectively deter safety violations by trucking companies and drivers who have powerful economic incentives to break the rules.  A requirement of electronic monitoring devices on trucks would help, but the industry strongly resists that.  Lawyers like me provide after-the-tragedy enforcement, but it would be far better if the trucking industry and the FMCSA would embrace the technology that is now available to deter safety rule violations.

The latest twist in the controversy over opening US highways to Mexican trucking companies is that Qualcomm has contracted with the FMCSA to provide participating companies free access to its satellite tracking system for one year under NAFTA. The systems will be installed at no cost to the trucking companies and will be used to enforce safety requirements, including hours of service and direct shipping standards.  The system will relay the location, speed, trip details, mileage and other data of the vehicles back to an operations center. The trucks will be tracked by vehicle number and company, and no driver information will be collected. The fly in the ointment is that Congress has cut off funding for the pilot project. 

After hearing U.S. truck drivers’ tales about how confused they were trying to follow French language road signs in Quebec, I will be interested to see how Mexican truck drivers handle English road signs, maps and directions once this project cranks up.