Politics & Government

Safety group seeks limits on trucks' size, drivers' hours

This tractor-trailer killed 10 people in a wreck on Interstate 44 in Oklahoma in 2009. Police said the driver had slept only five hours the previous night.
This tractor-trailer killed 10 people in a wreck on Interstate 44 in Oklahoma in 2009. Police said the driver had slept only five hours the previous night. AP Photo/Oklahoma Highway Patrol

WASHINGTON — The pictures were lovely: portraits of parents, a couple on their wedding day, children, entire families. The stories were gut-wrenching. All those in the photos were dead, killed in accidents with large trucks.

As family members stood behind a lectern in a Senate hearing room earlier this month, holding their memories, they were united by their losses and their resolve to improve truck safety, particularly to crack down on overworked truck drivers who easily skirt federal hours-of-service rules by falsifying their driving logs.

Ron Wood held up photos of those he'd lost — his mother, his sister and three nephews — in a horrific 2004 accident caused by a sleepy truck driver in Sherman, Texas, that killed 10 people.

The 18-wheeler crossed the median on a highway 60 miles north of Dallas and struck two oncoming cars, burning the SUV with Wood's family in it beyond recognition.

It was that crash that propelled Fort Worth police Officer Robert Mills to get actively involved in commercial vehicle enforcement and to be an activist for truck safety.

"The use of paper logbooks by truck drivers is like running a business with paper notebooks and no computers," said Mills, who was in uniform, and, along with victims' family members, participated in a Truck Safety Coalition news conference. The logs, he said, which are supposed to enforce federal limits of 77 hours behind the wheel a week — or 11 consecutive hours at a time — are sometimes called "comic books" by drivers.

A somewhat unlikely ally joined longtime consumer activist Joan Claybrook, one of the coalition's leaders: Teamsters President Jimmy Hoffa, who represents truck drivers. Hoffa called on the Obama administration to issue tougher regulations for driving hours and for Congress to pass a bill, the Safe Highways and Infrastructure Protection Act, that would outlaw larger, heavier trucks. The bill was introduced in the Senate earlier this month by Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., and last month in the House of Representatives by Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass.

"Every year about 4,000 people needlessly die on our highways and 100,000 more are injured in truck crashes," Claybrook said. "Families and truck drivers are being slaughtered on our highways because of the trucking industry's relentless push for bigger, overweight trucks operated by drivers who are exhausted and pressured to meet unreasonable delivery deadlines."

Hoffa said he was driven by his members — more than 600,000 of the 1.4 million Teamsters are drivers — and the need to promote safety.

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration is in the final stages of two related rules: to limit service to 10 consecutive hours and to require trucks to convert to electronic on-board recorders to keep tabs on the hours driven continuously. The Truck Safety Coalition is pushing for quick approval of the rules, while the trucking industry supports the on-board recorders but not changing the driving limits.

"The fact is, while operating under the current hours-of-service rule, trucking has been involved in far fewer fatal and injury crashes, and it has improved its fatality and injury crash rates," American Trucking Associations President Bill Graves said. The industry maintains that cutting working hours is "labor's agenda" to expand the number of workers needed, while efforts to limit truck size and weight hurt productivity.

That issue is something of a passion for Wood, who held on tightly to copies of photos of his family members, especially of his towheaded nephews, as he described the accident more than six years ago that destroyed his family, killing his mother, Betsy Wood, sister, Lisa Wood Martin, and her sons as well as five others.

"A witness saw the driver throw the driver's log into the fire," Wood said. "We're big advocates of electronic on-board recorders."

A National Transportation Safety Board investigation found that the "driver's cellphone records suggest that he would have been awake for most of the 34.5 hours prior to the accident" and concluded that "significant lack of sleep" was a probable cause of the accident.

The truck driver pleaded guilty to 10 counts of manslaughter and is serving a 10-year sentence.

For Mills, the Fort Worth police officer, the case was wrenching. Although he didn't have any role in investigating the crash, which was outside his jurisdiction, he was galvanized by it, and started a police commercial-vehicle enforcement unit in Fort Worth.

"There's been lots of cases I've worked over the years," said Mills, who spoke last week as he paused from pointing a radar gun at speeding truckers. "And especially the ones with kids will be imprinted on my brain. That one was a turning point for me."


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