California Trucking Rules for Sleeping and Drowsy Driving

There is nothing wrong with doing all you can to earn a good living. For a truck driver and the trucking industry in general, that means working hard to move goods from Point A to Point B.

But there is a center line that should not be crossed - and it's where business and financial goals start to infringe on the safety of other drivers and passengers on the roads and highways.

Why Is Drowsy Driving A Legal Liability?

Drowsy driving is a legal liability because it is a form of negligence, defined as the failure to use reasonable care, and this causes injury or death to another person. California, just like in other states, imposes legal liability on drivers who cause truck accidents because of negligent driving.

Both truck drivers and their employers, trucking and shipping companies, haul an unbelievable amount of freight from one part of the country to another every year, day in and day out. According to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, the U.S. transportation system is the largest in the world, moving billions of tons of goods annually. By virtue of just the sheer number of miles traveled, apart from drowsy driving, we expect to see a fair number of crashes and accidents.

And it should be said: Without truck drivers and all the other people who work in the industry to support the U.S. transportation system, we'd find ourselves in a bit of a pickle when it comes to getting our smart phones and other consumer goods, as well as the necessities like fruits and vegetables. The transportation industry itself is not necessarily to blame - but is generally accountable for personal injury and wrongful death when it happens.

Drowsy driving - nodding off behind the wheel for a second or even falling completely asleep for longer than that - is a clear form of negligence, where the truck driver does not take reasonable care while driving and fails to help ensure the safety of other motorists on the roads and highways.

Simply put, the truck driver is too tired to be driving. Just like other forms of negligent truck driving, such as driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs and texting while behind the wheel rather than paying attention to the road, drowsy driving is a legal liability because it can result directly in an otherwise preventable crash.

What Can Businesses Do To Help Prevent Drowsy Driving For Their Workers?

Businesses can take a few steps to help prevent drowsy driving for their truck drivers, but unfortunately, these steps are often not taken or simply ignored, whether in the name of adding more to the bottom line, or because of the status quo in operating how the company has always operated.

Prioritize safe driving: This ABC News article frames its headline as " forcing truck drivers to drive sleep deprived" as a common cause of truck accidents. "Tight deadlines can mean more hours behind the wheel with fewer opportunities to rest, and drivers are only paid when the wheels are rolling," per ABC News. Whether truck drivers are actually forced to drive or not by their individual employers is only part of the question - not all trucking companies treat their drivers the same - but so too is the underlying profit motive that pervades the entire industry, just as it does any other business industry. Assuming that most truck drivers are motivated to perform well at their jobs and earn a decent living, it's safe to say that truckers will feel pressure to keep the wheels rolling. Perhaps the cost-benefit analysis bears out otherwise, but one method to help prevent drowsy driving is to make explicit - on paper and email is a good place to start - that safe and well-rested driving is the company's priority. The company can then begin to create and enforce reasonable policies that prioritize safe driving.

Treat sleep apnea: A prime example of good truck company policy would be to help support and treat truck drivers with sleep apnea, a common ailment among truckers and in the American population at large. There are a few different forms of sleep apnea, but in general, sleep apnea disrupts a person's sleep and may cause fatigue and drowsiness, among other health problems. The Mayo Clinic warns against "excessive daytime sleepiness," or hypersomnia, as a possible symptom of sleep apnea. For a trucker who hits the highway to embark on his or her workday, facing an eight-hour or longer shift while dealing with hypersomnia is an obvious problem.

Get rid of the "comic books": Another policy might be to impose some form of internal discipline on drivers who keep false logbooks, or "comic books" as they are known in some parts of the country, that show whether or not a truck driver is following the rules of the road imposed by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. The FMCSA wants truckers to get "restorative sleep," which is essentially the entire purpose of the hours-of-service rules. Truck drivers who falsify their logbooks to make it look like they were sleeping, when they really weren't, put other drivers and passengers at risk. So too do the executives and managers of truck companies who are aware of the problem and allow it to happen without taking corrective action. To give an example of some of the FMCSA's language: "The duration of the driver's relief from duty must be a finite period of time which is of sufficient duration to ensure that the accumulated fatigue resulting from operating a commercial motor vehicle will be significantly reduced." In other words, the logbooks must be legitimate and accurate in order to show compliance with the hours-of-service rules and ensure that truck drivers actually get the restorative sleep they need to travel safely on the roads. One approach to accomplish this is through digital or automated logbooks.

Emerging Technology That Aims To Prevent Drowsy Driving

Assuming that at least a few truck companies will continue to fail to prioritize safe driving, perhaps tech will save us. Emerging and established tech that aims to prevent drowsy driving is a worthy mention here, given that actual lives are on the line, in terms of permanent life-changing injuries or irrevocable wrongful death. As a society - not just the trucking industry - we should make an ongoing effort to prioritize safe driving through emerging technology.

Lane-departure warning systems, for example, come equipped on many late model cars and trucks. These systems work by alerting the driver when the vehicle drifts out of the lane and into the adjacent lane or onto the shoulder. Some systems take things a step further by both warning the driver of lane departure and taking corrective action on their own - an obvious plus when it comes to a truck driver who has lost the battle with hypersomnia and is completely asleep behind the wheel. Some systems are even more sophisticated in their ability to monitor the driver's face for signs of drowsiness and fatigue and register a "complaint" or warning that the driver is too tired to be out on the road.

Then, of course, there is autonomous driving itself, which might be the only true answer to drowsy human driving.

What Is California Doing About Limiting Drowsy Driving Accidents?

Some may argue that California and the tech titans of Silicon Valley are well underway in limiting drowsy driving accidents by developing autonomous cars and lobbying government to allow their testing and use.

In 2018, the California Department of Motor Vehicles rolled out permits that allow for the testing of self-driving cars on public roads without an operator in the vehicle, as well as the implementation of full autopilot mode in self-driving cars already owned and operated by ordinary drivers. Though there have been many important moments in the history of this emerging technology, this moment is crucial to its development and ultimate implementation, because it explicitly represents the government's willingness to allow automakers like Tesla Motors and Google to push their projects forward. As a result, companies like Uber and Waymo are now using autonomous big rigs to deliver cargo from Point A to Point B, and this method of transport will only continue to grow in size and scope.

It will be some time before we see a fully autonomous transportation system in place, if indeed that is the reality to come - as it seems to be - but until that time comes, we will continue to increasingly rely on emerging tech like lane departure systems and driver assist to help limit drowsy driving accidents. We will also continue to rely on the support of government regulators like the California DMV and safe product development and testing on the part of automakers.

How Many People Die In Drowsy Driving Incidents Every Year?

Too many people die in drowsy driving incidents every year.

According to past estimates made by the National Highway Institute and others, drowsy driving is a factor in 20 percent of fatal crashes annually. That is a significant chunk. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, there are roughly 30,000-40,000 total motor vehicle crash deaths every year, which puts drowsy driving deaths at around 7,000, give or take. In a 2018 report, the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety references a much lower estimate - just one to two percent - but says the actual percentage is likely to be much higher, given the difficulty of ascertaining whether someone is sleep deprived. In contrast, it is much easier to tell whether someone was driving under the influence of alcohol by administering a breath test. That said, even the conservative figure of 350 drowsy driving-related deaths, taking just one percent out of 35,000 total fatalities, is 350 too many.

To add fuel to the fire, the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, in a 2016 report, suggested that the risk of getting into a crash doubles when drowsy on five or six hours of sleep, as opposed to the solid seven or eight. Given the number of miles truck drivers travel for their jobs, it's not unreasonable to venture that the risk is even higher here, if you limit the analysis to drowsy truckers on five or six hours - or less - of sleep.

What Are The Consequences For Truck Drivers Who Drive Drowsy And End Up In An Accident?

We may as well call this driving under the influence of sleep deprivation. It's just as dangerous as driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs. The list of consequences is long for drowsy truckers ( and drowsy bus drivers) who cause an accident, especially accidents that end in serious injury or wrongful death.

The list includes:

  • Criminal traffic charges involving recklessness, especially if the drowsy driving involved other factors such as driving under the influence of prescription drugs
  • Loss of the trucker's commercial driver's license and livelihood
  • Possible government scrutiny of the truck driver's employer, which could lead to the driver's termination and loss of income
  • The emotional guilt and remorse associated with causing a serious life-changing wreck

Finally, truck drivers who cause drowsy driving accidents open themselves up to legal liability in the form of a personal injury lawsuit. In such a suit, the injured party seeks financial compensation for his or her pain and suffering, the hospital's ER bills, the estimated cost of any continuing or future medical treatment, and loss of income or wages from time away from work, among other things. The families of victims who died in these crashes may also pursue justice in the form of a wrongful death lawsuit, which in some cases can reach into the millions.

There is an obvious reason why we want to prevent drowsy driving in general, and among truck drivers in particular - and why we should hold negligent commercial truck driving accountable in the justice system. As the FMCSA points out, commercial truck drivers are in command of large vehicles and therefore have "a lot of responsibility." These trucks weigh roughly 30,000 pounds - and that's a big rig or tractor trailer with no freight. Fully loaded trucks can weigh as much as 80,000 pounds. This is a problem when it comes to crashes that occur between tractor-trailers and cars. The average passenger car weighs around 4,000 pounds, give or take. Even large SUVs don't weigh that much more. When accounting for differences in size, weight and speed, depending on the particular wreck, you're looking at the distinct likelihood of serious injury to the occupants of the much smaller cars and SUVs hit by drowsy truck drivers who crossed the center line, failed to observe traffic signs, or pulled out in front of oncoming traffic.

That is exactly what happened to the driver of a Tesla Model S who relied too heavily on Autopilot mode in a fatal 2016 crash. The big rig pulled out in front of the car on the road in broad daylight and the Tesla's sensors failed to recognize what was happening. The collision resulted in the death of the Tesla driver. The truck driver was unharmed. This happened despite the Tesla Model S having earned an across-the-board 5-star safety rating - apparently the best rating of any car in history. It's clear that safety ratings do not really guarantee anything, certainly in collisions with much larger and heavier tractor trailers.

What Are The Effects Of Sleep Deprivation And Drowsy Driving?

The primary effect of drowsy driving itself is the increased risk of a wreck, which as we have pointed out above, may double that risk, based on five or six hours of sleep. Truck drivers in particular increase their risk of a crash when they are suffering from sleep deprivation, given the number of miles they travel and the pressure they feel to get from Point A to Point B. Even truck drivers who follow the FMCSA hours-of-service rules to the letter and comply with all California trucking rules for sleeping and drowsy driving - and yet are driving while drowsy - put themselves and others at risk of a serious truck accident.

According to Johns Hopkins Medicine, the effects of sleep deprivation may include:

  • Depression
  • Irritability
  • Anxiety
  • Forgetfulness
  • Fuzzy thinking

The problem of "fuzzy thinking" alone, not to mention the deeper or more pervasive issue of sleep apnea that many truck drivers experience, has an obvious impact on driving performance, especially those who are in control - or perhaps not in control - of fully loaded 80,000-pound commercial trucks. A quick judgment call to switch lanes or to pull out in front of oncoming traffic won't benefit from fuzzy thinking. Neither will determining how much distance to leave between the car in front of you or how to respond to a possible emergent situation, be it a weaving driver or slippery roads.

Legal Action To Take After Crashes Involving Drowsy Truck Drivers

After proper medical attention, the time will come to consider legal action. Most personal injury victims find themselves in unfamiliar territory - dealing with all the "admin" associated with medical bills and insurance paperwork. This may sound self-serving, but it's not: Even your own insurance company may not have your best interests at heart, as compared to a lawyer who directly represents your rights and legal interests.

Here's the bottom line: Sign nothing, agree to nothing, until you've had a chance to speak with an experienced personal injury attorney. In some cases, a two-sentence piece of advice can mean the difference between thousands of dollars of compensation and much, much less. Some victims even find themselves on the hook for medical liens that could have been avoided entirely. Simply put, those who have able legal representation can often maximize their ultimate financial recovery far beyond initial first offers from insurance companies, who aren't in the business of losing money, and who don't represent your legal interests.

If you've been injured in a crash involving a drowsy truck driver, consider the Los Angeles personal injury lawyers of Girardi | Keese. Reach us at 800-401-4530 or through this online contact form. We look forward to speaking with you.