September 8, 2000
JIM LEHRER: Truck safety on the nation's roads and highways: Last night, Betty Ann Bowser looked at the inspection and regulation of trucks. Tonight, in part two, her subject is driver fatigue.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: James Bowman spends six days a week in the cab of an 18-wheeler. On a recent afternoon he headed out of Denver with a load of mattresses, bound for Wichita, ten hours away.
JAMES BOWMAN: I like traveling. I like going places. To always have to go in and work in an office is, you know, it's kind of repetitive. You see the same thing every day. Out here as you're going down the road everything changes and you know, and everyday is different.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Bowman said he knew from experience he could handle the drive, without getting tired or becoming a threat to anyone else on the road. But the way Bowman drives, in fact the whole way he does business, is now being challenged by the federal government and a group of reformers who want to change some of the most fundamental principles of trucking.
MAN: Our daughter, Jennifer, was killed in March 1996 in a heavy truck crash that was related to fatigue.
WOMAN: My 16-year-old son, Terry, and a friend and teammate, Maurice Davis, who was also 16, lost their lives in a head-on collision with a tractor-trailer driver, a driver who had been on the road his 17th hour into the day.
MAN: My daughter was rear-ended by an 18-wheeler...
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Safety advocates brought families of victims to Washington over the summer to lobby for reform.
MAN: It's something you don't get over, and you never will.
WOMAN: Our son Jeffrey was killed by a tractor...
BETTY ANN BOWSER: They say tired truckers are responsible for thousands of deaths every year, so they want the federal government to change the hours of service-- that's the number of hours a day that truck drivers can legally be behind the wheel, and the number of hours drivers must rest.
MAN: We have to change the hours of service rules in some manner, shape, or form.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: The new Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, created to oversee truck safety, had already become concerned about fatigue. The acting chief of the agency says current rules have been in effect for more than 60 years, and it's time for a change.
MAN: They came into service when the top speed for most trucks was 40 miles an hour, where a long run for a truck was 250 miles. We need now, going into the 21st century, we need a transportation system for the 21st century, and I think changing the hours of service is a step in that direction and here's why: Fatigue is a real problem.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: In its first major initiative, the new agency proposed increasing driving time from ten to twelve hours, and rest time from ten hours to twelve, as well. But the safety groups tried to convince members of Congress that the new proposals allow drivers too much time behind the wheel. Jackie Gilian is vice president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety.
JACKIE GILIAN: We know that truck drivers are falling asleep now after driving eight, nine and ten hours, so we are strongly opposed to increasing the maximum continuous hours that truck drivers can drive. You're talking about every day of work, driving 12 hours. It not only foolhardy from a safety point of view, but its really inhumane to expect people to drive those many hours every day.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: James Bowman thinks they're all wrong. When he'd been on the road for seven hours and was still three hours away from Wichita, he said he didn't need the federal government or anyone else to tell him when he's tired.
JAMES BOWMAN: Yeah, I can tell for myself when I'm getting tired. You know, you start feeling kind of groggy, and when you start feeling where you're having to work to concentrate on what you're doing, work to keep from falling asleep, that's... it's time to pull over and stop.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Since the industry was deregulated in the 1980's, the number of trucking companies has grown from 270,000 to over half a million. Today, trucks move more than 80% of all freight in the country, and the industry projects that by 2006, the number of trucks moving freight will quadruple. Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater says that's one reason there needs to be a change in the hours of service. Slater's goal is to reduce truck crash fatalities by 50% in ten years, and at the same time reconcile with the safety advocates and the industry want.
RODNEY SLATER: What we've tried to do is to address the competing interests, keeping safety as the top priority though, and really come up with the solution that we think best meets the challenge, both from a safety vantage point, as the top priority, but then that recognizes also, the significance of this industry as it relates to the long-term economic prosperity of the country.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: But truckers say their basic economic well-being is threatened by the proposed rules. Bowman and his family took a day off to attend one of the new agency's regional hearings on the hours of service.
SPOKESMAN: The average long-haul driver will lose two hours per day driving time and that will cause goods to be late more frequently-- so much for fresh fruit.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Truckers are especially concerned about a new rule that would require them to take a two day weekend break at the end of every five days of driving.
SPOKESMAN: Having to sit for two days when I'm feeling good, my truck is doing good, freight is good and dispatch is working good, is anti-American.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Currently Bowman can choose to take a few days off, or go back on the road, but under the new hours of service he would have to stop driving altogether and rest for two full consecutive days, and it wouldn't matter whether he was at home or on the road. Bowman says that means he'll have fewer miles on the road each week, and in his business its miles, not hours he gets paid for.
BOWMAN: Within the first 40 days, 41 days we're going to lose, between the two trucks, we're going to lose right around... Minus 35 to 4,000... $3,500 to $4,000..and that's our truck payments right there. You're either going to have to sacrifice paying your bills to keep driving or find a different job. And you know, before I, you know, lose the house and possibly lose, you know... or get divorced and lose the family over the deal, I'd quit driving a truck. I'd go find something else.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: That's exactly what HVH Trucking, the Denver company Bowman drives for, is worried about. Like medium-sized trucking companies all over the country, HVH has a hard time hiring and keeping qualified drivers under the current hours of service. And HVH President Bruce Holder says if the new rules go through, they will literally put him out of business.
BRUCE HOLDER: Typically what we have found after studying the new proposed rules, we would lose somewhere between 20%-25% productivity with that driver. That means he drives 25% fewer miles. We could not survive under current pricing conditions.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: The big trucking companies that not only own their own trucks, but move their own products, say they'll survive the hours of service change. But they also contend they will need to hire additional drivers and put more trucks on the road to move the same amount of freight-- an increased cost of doing business that will be passed on to consumers. And John McQuaid, president of the country's largest private fleet trade organization, says because of the new weekend off rules, more truck drivers will be forced to hit the road on Monday morning.
JOHN McQUAID: We're not sure that it's a good safety incentive to have rules that would end up with more trucks on the road at a time when the highways are congested with commuters and possibly schoolchildren.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Industry leaders also point to a Department of Transportation study that shows only 9% of all accidents involve big trucks. And American Trucking Association Spokesman Dave Osiecki says the increased number of trucks on the road has not led to a higher percentage of fatal accidents.
DAVE OSIECKI: The fatal crash rate for trucks is at the lowest it's ever been. When you look at the number of trucks that are out there and the number of crashes and look at how many miles they are driving today, it's at its lowest ever. So safety has improved in the trucking industry and it continues to improve.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Critics say the new agency needs to know more about fatigue before it imposes new regulations. Phyllis Sheinberg is a transportation specialist at the government's General Accounting Office.
PHYLLIS SHEINBERG: The Department doesn't really know what the causes of these accidents are and it's only now, after much prodding has it entering into a large study to look at what are the true causes of large truck fatalities and crashes, and it's going to take a long time to get that data. In the meantime, it has a series of activities going on, but it doesn't really know if those activities are addressing the causes of this problem.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: As for Bowman, he just goes about his business, while the debate continues. He pulled into the loading dock in Wichita after ten hours on the road, just as he'd planned. He was right at the limits of his legal hours of service driving time.
BOWMAN: I'm ready for bed right now. Those last 15 minutes of driving was where I was getting tired and ready to stop.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Next morning, workers unloaded the mattresses while bowman slept in the bunk of his cab. He had taken his legal rest period and was soon on the road again, heading toward Kansas City. Bowman is worried, he knows change is coming, he's just doesn't know how it will affect him. Meanwhile, the Department of Transportation says, "no decision on new hours of service will be made in the Clinton administration."