Trump administration aims to ease commercial trucking safety rules

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This story was produced by FairWarning, a nonprofit news organization based in Southern California that focuses on public health, consumer and environmental issues. 

In Washington, D.C., a new Trump administration plan to relax safety rules for truck drivers has rekindled old heartaches for families across the country.

On a sunny Labor Day morning in Oklahoma, Linda Wilburn’s younger son, 19-year-old Orbie, hopped into his 1994 red Camaro and headed east from Weatherford on Interstate 40. The college freshman, excited about his new rental house, needed to collect more stuff from his parent’s place, 10 miles away.

At mile marker 87, he encountered a stall blocking both eastbound lanes. The young man slowed and stopped the Camaro. And then, on Sept. 2, 2002, Orbie DeWayne Wilburn was dead, smashed from behind by a big rig bearing down on him at high speed.

The 41-year-old truck driver from Kentucky, who also also died at the scene, had driven from Bakersfield, Calif. – nearly 1,300 miles away – to Oklahoma “without a rest break at all,” said Orbie’s mother.

Now the Wilburn family is steeling themselves for a new fight as the anniversary of Orbie’s death approaches. This week, the Trump administration formally proposed easing the rules over rest breaks truck drivers must take, and giving them more flexibility over their on- and off-duty time.

The proposed changes to the “hours of service” rules by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration were published Aug. 20 in the Federal Register, with a public comment period open for 45 days.

Dueling statistics

Both sides view the proposals as critical to safety, though they see the statistics through starkly different lenses.

Opponents, many of them grieving families like the Wilburns and highway safety groups, say the rollbacks are dangerous as government data show that deaths from crashes involving large trucks hit a 10-year high in 2017 at 4,761.

Proponents of the changes, including trucking companies and many commercial drivers, have long argued that existing rules for truckers are too burdensome and make no allowances for human needs and real-world business concerns. The same federal data also show that the rate of fatalities in large truck crashes based on vehicle miles traveled has declined steadily since 1975.

“We listened directly to the concerns of drivers for rules that are safer and have more flexibility – and we have acted,” Raymond P. Martinez, who heads the motor carrier safety agency, part of the Department of Transportation, said in a news release.

A 2015 FairWarning story revealed how the trucking industry had spent heavily on congressional lobbying and campaign contributions, urging looser restrictions on trucking companies and their drivers.

Meanwhile, the National Transportation Safety Board, an advisory agency with no regulatory power, has zeroed in on fatigued driving as a safety issue that is more serious than statistics suggest.

“Drowsy driving does not leave telltale signs and, as a result, it is widely believed to be underreported on police crash forms,” according to the agency, which has placed reducing fatigue-related accidents on its 2019-2020 “Most Wanted List” of safety improvements.

Flexibility for truckers

Among key details of the proposed rule changes, commercial truckers would be given greater flexibility to adjust their work and drive time to accommodate adverse weather and traffic conditions, and manage their downtime while trucks are being loaded and unloaded.

Commercial drivers still would be limited to 11 hours of driving time, but would be allowed to spread the 11 hours over a longer period of the day. In adverse conditions, another proposal would extend by two hours the maximum window during which driving is permitted.

Commercial drivers still would be limited to 11 hours of driving time, but would be allowed to spread the 11 hours over a longer period.

“How does one say that telling a truck driver, ‘You’re going to work a longer day,’ improve safety?” asked Harry Adler, executive director of the Truck Safety Coalition, a national network of volunteers that supports survivors and family members of truck-crash victims.

Adler said the government’s proposals could be used by “bad actors” in the trucking industry to exploit their drivers for competitive advantage.

“These (proposals) are opportunities for drivers to be pushed to their limits further, to drive without resting. It’s more opportunity for a driver to operate while fatigued, which is really detrimental,” he said.

Adler’s group has seen the emotional wreckage from fatigue-related truck crashes, with people like the Wilburns now counseling other devastated families and testifying before Congress. There is the Florida woman who lost her 23-year-old son and his new bride, killed while returning from their honeymoon when a semi-truck driver fell asleep at the wheel. And the Maryland man, whose wife was killed and 12-year-old son permanently disabled when the driver of a triple-tractor trailer on the Ohio Turnpike also fell asleep.

Orbie and Linda Wilburn
Orbie Wilburn and his mother, Linda, before the 2002 fatal crash. (Courtesy of family)

Dan Horvath of the American Trucking Associations said in an interview with FairWarning that the organization needs time to examine the data and research to see if the government’s proposals “are going to keep highways as safe as or safer than they currently exist.” ATA is the largest national trade association for the trucking industry.

“We are not quick to give an immediate response,” said Horvath, vice president of safety policy. “We really do take the time to do a thorough review, to work with our members.”

Norita Taylor of the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, which has pressed for the changes, said there is no scheduling rule that is “perfect” for every commercial driver. “The trucking industry is very diverse,” she said.

What is a constant, she said, is that commercial drivers must comply with hours of service regulations but their customers do not. “Shippers and receivers can keep them waiting as long as they want, and they do,” she said, noting that such delays burn down a driver’s allowable work window.

Same with other unexpected hurdles, such as traffic and weather conditions and accidents. “Then they have to race against the clock to meet deliveries and to also stay within compliance,” she said.

Taylor also said that “fatigue is very rare” in truck crashes. Recent government statistics show that 60 out of 4,600 drivers of large trucks involved in fatal crashes in 2017 were asleep or fatigued, or about 1.3 percent.

Emotional wreckage

Harry Adler of the Truck Safety Coalition doesn’t buy the argument, saying – as the NTSB does – that driver fatigue is almost certainly under-counted as a cause of crashes.

“I would also push back on the folks who say, ‘It’s only 60 people,’” he said. “I mean, folks, if amongst those 60 people it’s your loved one, it’s not just 60 people.”

In Oklahoma, Linda Wilburn still weeps when she describes her son’s death, one week after classes began at Southwestern Oklahoma State University. He planned to become an engineer.

She still wonders if her second son, named after his grandfather, had even a moment to recognize the impending danger.

On impact, both vehicles caught fire. And both drivers died, leaving Orbie’s car a tangle of melted and misshapen debris.

“There was just nothing left,” said Wilburn, whose family eventually settled a lawsuit with the trucking company.

Her husband, a volunteer firefighter at the time, went to the crash scene to join his co-workers that mild September morning. Gary Wilburn walked by the wreckage several times before suddenly realizing – based on a piece of wheel – that the car might be his son’s.

“I vowed early on – the first few days – if there was anything that I could do to prevent this from happening to one other family, I would do it,” said Wilburn, a board member for Parents Against Tired Truckers, part of the Truck Safety Coalition.

“The trucking industry has so much money and so many people who can spend their whole career lobbying,” she said. “We’re a handful. It’s hard for us to get the word out.”