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Obscure fatigue 'statistic' has worn out its welcome
31 percent of all heavy truck accidents caused by driver fatigue

By Joe Rajkovacz, OOIDA director of regulatory affairs

Those words have been tossed around quite frequently in our industry as justification to turn the screws on drivers more tightly. The only problem is: It ain’t true.

Whether we’re discussing hours of service, EOBRs, or roadside enforcement practices that specifically target allegedly fatigued truck drivers, proponents of more restrictions cavalierly toss about statistics to indicate trucking is out of control and truck drivers are accidents looking for a place to happen.

An example of this reckless behavior was a recent editorial in an Arkansas newspaper, the Jonesboro Sun. It opined, “And we’re still waiting for trucks to have the on-board data recorders, despite about 31 percent of all heavy truck accidents caused by driver fatigue, according to The AP.”

I suppose they could have verified the veracity of the 31 percent claim, but like many others who espouse greater restrictions on truckers, the truth would have undermined their preconceived idea that truckers are unsafe.

The notion that “31 percent of all heavy truck accidents [are] caused by driver fatigue” has any validity is a form of urban myth or, more suitably, a road rumor that took on a life of its own as it has been continually repeated.

The 31 percent number comes from an obscure NTSB Safety Study conducted back in 1988.

The title of the study is: Fatigue, Alcohol, Other Drugs, and Medical Factors in Fatal-To-The-Driver Heavy Truck Crashes. The study only looked at 186 accidents in eight states where the truck driver was killed. The primary purpose of the study was to assess the role that alcohol and other drugs played in the fatal accident.

That study was not a scientifically based, statistically valid examination of general fatigue among truckers, but it’s been artfully elevated to that level. The bogus 31 percent number from that study is repeated by many who want to mandate expensive on-board safety technologies (or worse) under the guise that fatigued driving is an epidemic.

In the final brief filed by the Minnesota State Attorney General’s Office in our litigation against the State Patrol, they cited the following: “FMCSA estimates that 755 fatalities and 19,705 injuries occur each year on the nation’s roads because of drowsy, tired, or fatigued CMV drivers.”

Notice the use of the word “estimates”? That quote came from the May 2, 2000, notice of proposed rulemaking, that began the circus that has become the current controversy surrounding HOS. Estimates are not replacements for facts, yet the Minnesota Attorney General reached into a grab-bag of irrelevant, dated “guesstimates” to try to justify the unjustifiable.

Just how significant is fatigue amongst truck drivers? There are reliable statistics that accurately report on the prevalence of fatigue in fatal crashes among truck drivers. They come from the Fatality Analysis Reporting System. Those numbers were publicly communicated on Sept. 30, 2010, in a webinar hosted by FMCSA titled: 2009 – Historic Truck Crash Declines. The number is 1.4 percent.

OOIDA President Jim Johnston underscored the point of overstating the prevalence of fatigue in federal court testimony regarding the infamous Minnesota “fatigue evaluation checklist” used to magically “prove” a trucker was too fatigued to continue driving. He stated:

“If this percentage of truck drivers operating down the roads of the United States were too fatigued to continue operating, there would be death and carnage on the highways, you would be picking up truck parts all over the country, and the public would demand an immediate shutdown of the trucking industry.”

There is a big difference between 1.4 percent and 31 percent. Excuse my cynicism, but why do supposedly responsible organizations like to rely on false or bad statistics to support hammering away at truckers?

Follow the money. Beating up unfairly on truckers is big business. Perpetuating the “big bad trucker” stereotype is being used to justify more onerous and costly mandates and regulations, more roadside enforcement and – of course – grabbing more taxpayer money. LL