On Dec. 29, 1972, Eastern Airlines Flight 401 departed New York at 9:20 p.m. en route to Miami. During the approach to Miami, the nosegear light failed to indicate “down and locked.” While the crew tried to fix the problem, the plane began losing altitude. A warning sounded, but the crew was too concerned with the light to notice. At 11:42 p.m., the first officer finally realized that the plane had lost altitude. Just seven seconds later, the plane struck the ground, killing everyone on board.
Like the crew of Flight 401, when it comes to truck safety, the federal government is ignoring the big picture while focusing on one small element: how off-duty hours impact truck driver fatigue. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s recent changes to the hours-of-service rule attempt to reduce fatigue and improve safety by adding two hours for rest each day.
Mandating additional rest without addressing the time truckers waste waiting at shippers and receivers accomplishes nothing. To make matters worse, under the new rules truckers run on a 14-hour on-duty clock that can only be stopped by logging sleeper berth time. Owner-operators will have little choice but to log much of the time sitting at a dock as sleeper berth splits – whether or not they actually rest. How does that help combat fatigue?
The government’s narrow focus also doesn’t address the issue of where truckers should take their 10 hours of rest. A recent study by the Federal Highway Administration showed truck parking shortages in the heaviest-traveled parts of the country. The study predicted the demand for parking will increase by 2.7 percent – and this was before the new extended rest hours.
Given these facts, it’s tough to see how the new rules will “make our nation’s highways much safer,” as Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta promises.
It doesn’t have to be this way. In the past, the Department of Transportation asked Congress for the authority to penalize shippers who contributed to log book violations. Congress said no. Likewise, the DOT’s new highway safety bill could have included a provision to address the waiting issue. But it doesn’t.
The American Trucking Associations has done nothing to address the waiting problem, preferring to let drivers and owner-operators make up for lost time without pay. And it turned its back on the parking shortage by ending its push for commercialization of rest areas.
Until Congress – and our own industry – wake up and look at all of the issues surrounding truck driver fatigue, we won’t make any real progress toward improving highway safety. Single-minded focus on one small piece of the safety puzzle can have disastrous consequences. The fate of Flight 401 proves it.