Truck Driver Fatigue: Leading Cause of Truck Accidents in California

It’s crucial to understand the issues associated with fatigue for those who operate heavy vehicles and how truck driver fatigue laws could affect each person. After all, more than 1 million heavy-duty trucks take to the roads each day in the Golden State and form the backbone of the State’s economy, covering huge distances to transport goods from point to point. What do truck drivers need to know about the perils of fatigue, the regulations that are meant to govern their driving hours, and the consequences of an accident? We cover all these issues and more in this article.

What’s the Scale of the Problem?

According to the Governor’s Highway Safety Association (GHSA), between 10% and 20% of large truck crashes involve a tired driver. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) also estimates that around 91,000 police-reported crashes per year involve drowsy drivers. When you apply some of those figures to the estimated 1.8 million heavy-duty trucks on California roads each day, it’s easy to see the potential scale of the issue.

What Are Hours of Service Regulations?

To try to combat the issue of truck driver fatigue, the State has hours of service (HOS) regulations. These rules govern how much time a commercial driver can spend on duty while behind the wheel. They are meant to help maintain safe roads and to ensure the drivers remain as alert and capable as possible while operating these large vehicles. The most important components of these HOS rules center around daily or weekly driving limits, mandatory rest breaks, and a specific 14-hour rule.

Specified Driving Limits

Regulators set specific limits to govern the number of hours that the commercial driver can spend driving on both a daily and weekly basis. For example, they are not allowed to drive more than 11 hours within any 24-hour period. On a weekly basis, they must not exceed 60 hours of on-duty time within a 7-day period or 70 hours measured over an 8-day period.

What Is the 14-Hour Rule Violation?

The 14-hour rule states that the commercial driver’s on-duty time (which includes driving and nondriving tasks) cannot exceed 14 consecutive hours. Consequently, when a driver has reached their limit, they are required to take 10 consecutive hours off before they start another working day. Regulators feel that this will help prevent drivers from working excessively long hours without adequate rest while considering the chores they need to perform out of the cab. This should reduce the risk of fatigue-related crashes and HOS violations.

Rest Break Rules

The regulations also talk about specific provisions for rest breaks. For example, a driver must have 30 minutes of downtime for every 5 hours of consecutive driving. This allows them to rest and recharge, which should contribute to increased alertness and better driving.

Logging Devices

Of course, the State does not rely on the drivers to simply adhere to these regulations at face value. Instead, each truck has to be fitted with an Electronic Logging Device (ELD). This gadget will automatically record the driver’s hours of service to give a verifiable and accurate record of their on-duty time and driving hours. These devices also help a driver keep records and are almost impossible to falsify.

Drivers and carriers must ensure that their devices meet the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) specifications. They must also ensure the device can communicate with the FMCSA systems through telematics or local transfer. Telematics systems use internal internet connections to upload data files to the device regulator. Local transfer systems use USB keypads and Bluetooth-enabled internet connections for the same function.

Drivers will be aware of penalties for any violation, so these gadgets help contribute to overall safety on the road.

Sleeper Berth Provisions

Drivers are allowed to split any required 10-hour off-duty periods so long as one of those periods is at least 2 hours long and the other has at least 7 consecutive hours spent in the vehicle’s sleeper berth. Sleeper berth pairings need to add up to at least 10 hours.

What Happens If You Get an Hours-of-Service Violation?

There could be severe penalties for hours-of-service violations. For example, the penalty for driving over 11 hours is classed as a misdemeanor and can lead to a fine of between $100 and $1,000 for each offense. Some hours-of-service violation penalties can extend to the employer or carrier as well as the driver and include fines or possible license suspension.

For a carrier or trucking company, HOS violations can be severe. After all, they can impact the carrier’s safety rating, which is a crucial factor in the evaluation of the company’s compliance with safety regulations. It can also have an impact on their insurance.

In the worst-case scenarios, serious violations can lead to an out-of-service order. In this case, both the carrier and the driver may be prohibited from operating until violations are addressed.

FMCSA carries out regular reviews among licensed carriers. Discrepancies within driver logs or other information could lead to further enforcement actions against both the carrier and the driver.

What Evidence Is There That Links Fatigue to Accidents?

Due to the potential scale of the problem, the FMCSA conducted some comprehensive research known as the Large Truck Crash Causation Study. This study aimed to investigate the causes and contributory factors of crashes involving large trucks and sought to understand the role of commercial motor vehicles in traffic accidents in general.

The study involved some in-depth investigations across the country using a representative sample of crashes so researchers could gather crucial information (up to 1,000 data points) about the events that led up to each incident.

The key objectives of this study identified critical events that led up to each crash (including items like brake failure, driver error, environmental factors, or fatigue).

Why Does Fatigue Probably Cause So Many Accidents Today?

The Large Truck Crash Causation study sought to understand why each accident happened, assess the pre-crash vehicle movements, and closely examine vehicle and driver characteristics. Crucially, they found that fatigue was a key element in 13% of fatal and injury crashes that involved at least one large truck.

Why Do Drivers Violate HOS Rules?

Most commercial drivers on the road today understand the risks associated with rule violation and the consequences of an accident with such a heavy vehicle. However, drivers may unintentionally exceed their daily or weekly limits if employers pressurize them, or they have to deal with tight schedules caused by heavy traffic. Still, these violations definitely pose a significant risk to other road users and compromise the safety of the driver or their passengers.

Why Drivers Should Be Aware of the Signs of Fatigue

Every driver must be aware of the impending signs of fatigue. These can include heavy eyelids, excessive yawning, and difficulty in focusing. The regulations should prevent a driver from reaching that level of fatigue, but when in doubt, it’s best for a driver to stop and rest instead.

When a Driver Is Feeling Fatigued, What Should They Do?

Drivers will need to take a multifaceted approach if they want to address driving fatigue.

Prioritize Adequate Sleep

The best remedy for driving fatigue is to get enough sleep to maintain proper alertness on the road. It’s important to get 7 to 9 hours of sleep each night and, where possible, establish a consistent sleep schedule that helps regulate the body’s internal clock.

Take Regular Breaks

Strict regulations mandate breaks for drivers of heavy-duty vehicles, but these are not just rest stops. They are also essential for mental clarity.

Stay Hydrated

When the body is dehydrated, it can sometimes exacerbate fatigue. So, drivers should keep a water bottle within reach while on the road. They should also avoid excessive consumption of sugary or caffeinated beverages, as these types of drinks can lead to dehydration in the long run.

Maintain a Healthy Diet

Good, nutrient-rich foods can provide sustained energy sources. Drivers should opt for balanced meals with a mix of carbohydrates, healthy fats, and proteins. Unfortunately, the legendary “truck stop” meals, including heavy and greasy food, can induce lethargy.

Use Caffeine Wisely

Of course, caffeine is known to provide a temporary energy boost, but it’s never a substitute for proper sleep. Instead, it should be consumed strategically and never in excessive amounts, especially in the winding down hours leading to sleep.

Keep a Comfortable Environment

Always maintain a comfortable cabin temperature with good ventilation. Stuffy conditions can contribute to drowsiness.

Engage in Physical Activity

Where possible, try to incorporate light physical activity during a rest break. This can stimulate blood circulation and enhance alertness. A simple short walk or series of stretches can make a crucial difference.

Think About Circadian Rhythms

Circadian rhythms are internal biological “clocks” that regulate a variety of physiological processes across a 24-hour cycle. Experts believe that these rhythms can play a pivotal role in determining a person’s level of alertness throughout the day. These switches can impact key functions like hormonal production, body temperature, and sleep/wake cycles.

Unfortunately, circadian rhythms can have a significant effect on alertness and fatigue. It’s thought that humans experience peaks and troughs in alertness tied to the body’s internal clock. Alertness may be highest during the late morning or early evening, while early morning and mid-afternoon may represent periods of reduced alertness.

It’s very difficult to plan any driving schedule around circadian rhythms, and many truck drivers will certainly need to be behind the wheel in the early morning and mid-afternoon. Nevertheless, it’s important to understand the role of circadian rhythms in helping the human body to function.

What’s Not Recommended to Prevent Driver Fatigue?

While there are many things that a truck driver can do to help them avoid fatigue, they should also avoid some other practices.

Taking Stimulants

Stimulus like caffeine (and other drugs) may give temporary energy boosts, but they never substitute for proper rest. In fact, a reliance on stimulants alone can lead to a false sense of alertness and may also end in an energy crash.

Indulging in Bad Eating Habits

It’s best to eat smaller and balanced meals to maintain energy levels. Large and heavy meals can induce drowsiness and cause digestive discomfort, reducing attention levels.

Using Electronic Devices Prior to Sleep

Some advocate that you should significantly reduce the amount of screen time before retiring for rest. Access to the screen itself can interfere with sleep quality.

What Are the Legal Repercussions of a Fatigue-Related Accident?

Unfortunately, truck driver fatigue can lead to serious accidents, often involving other parties. Where a truck driver causes an accident, and it’s down to drowsiness or fatigue, there may be legal repercussions. An attorney representing the other party may immediately suspect fatigue and drowsiness and will want to hold both the truck driver and carrier liable for the accident.

The other party’s attorney will want to see details from the driver’s log but will also ask for receipts from toll stations, gas stations, or hotels. They may also be able to access surveillance cameras that could prove a driver’s behavior.

What Should You Do Next If You’re Involved in an Accident?

If you’re involved in an accident where fatigue or drowsiness may have been involved, you should seek out professional support from an attorney who specializes in this area. At Kuzyk Law, we have extensive experience in truck-related accidents. We serve clients in Lancaster and throughout California who have experienced crashes involving heavy-duty trucks and where truck driver fatigue may have been a contributory factor. 

So, if you or a loved one have been the victim of a trucking accident, get in touch today. You can fill out an online contact form for a free and no-obligation evaluation.

Remember, we’re available 24 hours per day, seven days per week to talk with you on the phone. We also speak Spanish.