Drivers Endangered by New DOT Funding Bill

The U.S. House of Representatives recently approved a bill to provide funding for the U.S.Department of Transportation (DOT) through 2016. Sadly, the approved bill includes several provisions that will only make our highways more dangerous in the coming year. The House version was approved June 9, and the U.S. Senate is expected to pass its own version in the coming months.

Unfortunately for drivers, the approved bill will prevent the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) from enacting a proposed rule limiting the amount of time that truck drivers can spend on the road. The “hours of service” restrictions recommended by the FMCSA would require drivers to observe a 34-hour rest period between every 60 hours of work over seven consecutive days or every 70 hours of work over eight consecutive days. However, the new funding bill ignores the FMCSA recommendation for the second year in a row, and will allow drivers to work as many as 82 hours over an 8-day period.

Driver fatigue represents one of the leading causes of roadway accidents involving 18-wheelers, tractor-trailers and other heavy trucks. Overall, the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration estimates that more than 100,000 police-reported highway crashes are the direct result of driver fatigue every year, causing approximately 1,550 deaths, 71,000 injuries, and more than $12 billion in financial losses annually.

In addition to allowing truck drivers to stay on the road for longer periods without a rest break, the new DOT funding bill also will allow trucking companies across the U.S. to begin using double trailers up to 33 feet long each. As previously noted on this blog, state troopers from across the U.S. oppose these bigger rigs based on the inherent dangers. Numerous independent studies have shown that double trailers, also called longer combination vehicles (LCVs), are less stable than single trailers, making them harder to control on the highway. With the added weight of an extra trailer, accidents involving LCVs are almost always more destructive than those involving single trailers.

Finally, the new DOT funding bill also will require the FMCSA to stop working on its 2-year-old study to increase the minimum amount of liability insurance required for truckers and trucking companies. This is a topic we have covered here before, and it’s one of the more troubling aspects of the new funding bill.

The federally mandated minimum amount of liability insurance required for truck drivers and trucking companies is $750,000, which is the same amount that’s been in place for the past 30 years. Despite calls for the minimum to be raised to approximately $4.25 million to account for increases in medical costs and inflation generally, the new bill will retain the existing standard. What that means is that those who are seriously injured in a crash with a big rig almost surely will not be able to rely on a trucking company’s insurance policy to cover their medical care. Instead, they will be forced to pay out of their own pockets or they will have to win a lawsuit if they ever hope to be able to get back on their feet again.

While trucking companies and truck drivers got what they wanted, and it’s very likely the Senate will approve a similar version of the DOT funding bill, there’s always hope that our legislators will do the right thing next year by deciding to protect the safety of our country’s citizens rather than bowing to the interests of the trucking industry and its high-paid lobbyists.