COVID-19 Prompts Feds to Relax Drowsy Truck Driver Rules

To keep the supply chain intact during the coronavirus outbreak, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Association relaxed some key safety rules. Did this change make your family safer or more vulnerable?

A March 2020 order expanded the list of “necessary supplies” to include fuel, raw materials, and many other items. Truckers who haul such materials received temporary exemptions from federal HOS (hours of service) requirements. The waivers include things like mandatory break periods, hourly limits, and recordkeeping requirements. The FMCA’s order stopped short of waiving weight limits, but some states have already done so.

“The nation’s truck drivers are on the front lines of this effort and are critical to America’s supply chain,” said U.S. Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao.

Fatigued Truck Drivers: A Closer Look

Truckers are people, too. They have the same strengths and weaknesses as the rest of us. People, including truckers, are not at their best when they are drowsy. As professional drivers, truckers should know their driving limits more than anyone. But sometimes, that is not how things work out.

Most shipping companies do not pay drivers by the mile. Instead, they pay by the load. So, truckers must stay behind the wheel as long as possible in order to make money. That economic necessity creates a great temptation to bend the rules.

Frequently, the fatigued driving risk begins for truckers before they get out of bed in the morning. Largely because they stay awake for long periods, many truckers develop sleep apnea. This condition robs people of deep, restorative sleep. Instead, they basically nap all night. As a result, many truckers are dangerously fatigued even if they got a full night’s sleep.

Fatigue directly affects driving skills. Drowsiness slows reaction time, clouds judgement ability, and impairs concentration. Alcohol has basically the same effect on the brain and body. In fact, driving after 18 consecutive awake hours is like driving with a .05 BAC level. That is above the legal limit for commercial drivers in Florida.

Alcohol and fatigue have something else in common. There is no quick fix for either condition. Only time cures alcohol intoxication and only sleep cures fatigue. Shortcuts, like cranking up the air conditioner, are largely ineffective.

Evidence in Drowsy Truck Driver Crashes

Victim/plaintiffs must prove fatigue, or another form of negligence, in court. The burden of proof (a preponderance of the evidence, or “more likely than not”) is rather low. However, there is usually a direct relationship between the amount of evidence jurors review and the amount of damages they award. More on that below.

Electronic Logging Devices automatically keep track of HOS compliance. The trucking industry fought the ELD mandate all the way to the Supreme Court. That is how important this evidence could be in court.

Previously, truckers recorded HOS in paper log books. These entries were easy to falsify. An ELD is connected to the truck’s drivetrain, so assuming the gadget was working properly, ELDs offer near-conclusive evidence of HOS compliance. Computers are never biased and never wrong.

This evidence is often quite compelling in court. However, that is assuming the evidence is available. And unless attorneys act quickly, that is usually not the case.

Truck wrecks are often catastrophic because these vehicles are so heavy and carry so much fuel. Insurance companies usually destroy totalled vehicles a few days after a crash. If that happens, any physical evidence the truck contains, including the ELD, is gone forever.

So, attorneys quickly send spoliation letters to insurance companies. These letters create a legal duty to preserve all potential physical evidence, including the ELD, for trial.

The Safety Maintenance System report is often useful as well. The FMCSA created the SMS database a few years ago. It is like a multi-state driving record which keeps track of things like:

  • Medical history,
  • Vehicle maintenance background,
  • Crash history,
  • Alcohol/substance use background, and
  • Citation history.

As mentioned, drowsiness is often a medical problem among truckers. Attorneys must cut through bureaucratic red tape and privacy laws to access this vital information.

Circumstantial evidence, such as the time of day or night, is admissible as well. Most people are naturally drowsy during these times. Most truckers are behind the wheel at these times.

Are Sick Drivers Negligent Drivers?

COVID-19 has not just increased the number of drowsy truck drivers on the road. It has also increased the number of sick noncommercial drivers on the road. Most coronavirus victims have mild or moderate symptoms. Even though they should stay home, they often go out. When they do so, they put other people at risk.

Mild illness is a lot like fatigue. Sickness disrupts concentration and inhibits motor skills. Some symptoms, like watery eyes, make these effects even worse. In fact, according to one study, mild sickness decreases driving skills by as much as 50%.

Not every runny nose or sore throat is a breach of the duty of reasonable care, but at some point, sick drivers cross the line. Evidence of sick driving negligence includes:

  • Statements the tortfeasor (negligent driver) made to first responders,
  • Recent sick days,
  • Tortfeasor’s physical symptoms, and
  • Recent doctor visits.

Medicine purchases might be more than just circumstantial evidence. Some cold and flu medicines, like NyQuil, are imparing on their own. Drivers who operate vehicles under the influence of such medications might be liable for car crash damages as a matter of law, under the negligence per se rule.

Damages in a vehicle collision case usually include compensation for economic losses, such as medical bills. If the victim sustained a serious injury, additional compensation for noneconomic losses, such as pain and suffering, is available as well. Generally, if your car was not drivable after the accident, you probably sustained a serious injury according to Florida law.

Truck accident claims often include additional punitive damages as well. These damages deter future wrongful conduct and so protect other drivers on the road.

Contact a Savvy Attorney

Negligent drivers and truckers often cause serious injuries. For a free consultation with an experienced personal injury attorney in Miami, contact Brill & Rinaldi, the Law Firm. We do not charge upfront legal fees in negligence cases.