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New rules for commercial trucking set to be published later this month take aim at two factors that have long haunted the industry: driver fatigue and excess speed.
Driver fatigue was cited as a major factor in the high-profile June 2014 accident in which comedian Tracy Morgan was critically injured, along with two other passengers. A fourth passenger was killed when a Wal-Mart Stores Inc. truck driver failed to notice stopped traffic on the New Jersey Turnpike and hit the limousine.
Safety is at the heart of the new rules. In the most recent data available, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration said 3,921 people died in trucking accidents in 2012 and that trucking accidents cost about $50 billion a year.
To deal with excess speed, rules due for publication Sept. 20 would require commercial truck drivers to use an electronic logging device instead of a handwritten log to record their hours on the road.
So-called hours of service, which would allow driving 11 hours after a 10-hour break, are intended to ensure drivers get enough rest. During roadside safety inspections, the most common citation for commercial truckers is exceeding hours of work, according to a Department of Transportation report.
“Driver hours-of-service violations and falsified driver logs continue to pose significant safety concerns,” the 2011 report said.
Electronic logging also can protect trucking companies from litigation.
“From an insurance standpoint, when there is a crash, often times the driver is immediately blamed and the company is, too,” said Steve Bojan, Milwaukee-based vice president of fleet risk services at Hub International Ltd. “This electronic data can exonerate the driver and the company. When you have hard data to show that you are in the right, it really does help our industry. It helps our image and, from an insurance standpoint, that's huge.”
The data can prove that a driver complied with federal rules, experts said.
“I believe mandating ELDs is going to get everybody to play by the rules,” said Reggie Dupre, CEO of Lafayette, Louisiana-based Dupre Logistics. “There are some unsafe operators out there that are giving our industry a black eye. It makes everyone adhere to the hours of service, and you will have less fatigued drivers and that will make roads safer.”
An April 2014 study by the Department of Transportation and the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration found there were 11.7% fewer crashes for trucks whose drivers used electronic logs versus written logs. The study examined 83,000 crashes from 2008-2012 processed by the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute's Center for Truck and Bus Safety.
The study also found that drivers using electronic logs had 53% fewer hours-of-service violations.
Electronic logs do affect safety, said Rich Bleser, senior vice president and fleet specialty practice leader at Marsh Risk Consulting in Milwaukee.
“It brings a lot more visibility to what the driver is doing — the when, where and how,” Mr. Bleser said. “The ELD mandate is estimated (by the Federal Motor Carrier Administration) to affect 3 million vehicles and help prevent, in their estimation, approximately 20 fatalities, and close to 430 injuries each year for an safety benefit of $395 million.”
Federal agencies also have proposed rules on excessive speed and its role in an estimated 1,115 fatal truck crashes annually on roads with speed limits of 55 mph or more.
A proposal that was due to be published in August but has been delayed would require installing and using what's known as a speed limiter or governor to cap the maximum speed allowed for commercial trucks.
“We are definitely proponents of the speed limiter technology. We think it makes the roads safer,” said Mike Gramm, Chicago-based head of trucking business lines at XL Catlin. “In our world, the excess liability world, it's not just the number of crashes, it's the severity of them.”
“We have an opportunity to measurably improve safety,” said Sean Garney, director of safety policy at American Trucking Association. From crash studies, speed is cited as the critical precrash event 18% of the time, he said. “To be able to reduce that will without a doubt improve safety.”
Mr. Bleser said there's a problem, though.
“The challenge is that when you limit the speed of truck and not automobiles, that differentiation poses a different set of hazards,” he said, such as cars moving into oncoming traffic to pass slower trucks.
Scott Grenerth, regulatory affairs director of the Grain Valley, Missouri-based Owner-Operator Individual Drivers Association, said he has seen how speed limiters affect traffic during 13 years of driving a truck.
“Speed limiters cause the traffic to just not flow. You'd be driving along and there's a truck only allowed to go 55 mph and, in some states, the speed limit is up to 75 or 80. This is not an issue of safety; it's a business model where some companies can get the fuel efficiency that they want to get,” Mr. Grenerth said.
Overall, the rules are viewed as steps in the right direction.
“The fatality rates on America's highways, when it comes to commercial trucks, have been improving consistently over the last 40 years and our general view is that America's roads are continuing to get safer on a per-mile basis through a lot of things like new technology, better enforcement and better education in equipping commercial drivers. These are some of the tools that help make America's roads safer,” Mr. Gramm said.
“Transportation as an industry is going to continue to grow; products have to get where they need to go. There really is a push in the transportation industry of all modes to be as safe as possible and the reason that transportation has gotten safer is the push from the insurance industry,” Mr. Bojan said.
“The insurance industry has vigorously requested that the fleets that they insure implement improved safety practices” and even helped them achieve the safety improvements, he said.