House subcommittee discusses hours of service, sleep apnea

June 2019

Mark Schremmer


Reducing the number of highway fatality crashes was the focus of a House Transportation and Infrastructure subcommittee meeting on April 9 in Washington, D.C.

Citing statistics from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-Washington, D.C., said there were 37,133 fatalities on U.S. roadways in 2017.

“We need to improve how we design our transportation networks,” Holmes Norton said. “We need to improve how we educate the users of those networks. And we need to improve how we enforce the strategies that we claim will save lives.”

While only 4,455 of the fatality crashes in 2017 involved large trucks or buses, the subcommittee discussed such truck-related issues as hours of service, speed limiters and sleep apnea testing.

Testifying at the hearing, National Transportation Safety Board member Jennifer Homendy said she believed collision avoidance systems and speed limiters are effective ways to reduce highway fatalities.

Answering a question from Rep. Rob Woodall, R-Ga., Homendy also said the NTSB is generally not in favor of any exemptions or exceptions to the hours-of-service rules.

“We do support science-based hours of service standards, and we don’t support exemptions to those standards,” she said. “We believe people should have adequate rest. We don’t support allowing them to continue driving if they are not fit for duty. We would not support less off-duty time and more work time.”

Homendy’s strong stance regarding hours-of-service regulations is especially interesting when you consider that U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao told truck drivers in March at the Mid-America Trucking Show that a notice of proposed rulemaking for hours-of-service reform was on its way.

The proposal, which promised to give truck drivers more flexibility within the hours of service, was sent to the White House for review in March.

“You wanted flexibility. We listened,” Chao told the attendees at MATS.

Homendy also spoke in opposition of the decision by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration and the Federal Railroad Administration to not move forward on a rulemaking mandating sleep apnea testing.

“It’s a significant issue,” she said. “We’ve investigated a number of accidents involving fatigued drivers, whether it’s a motor vehicle, a large truck, or in the rail industry. We’ve issued a number of recommendations on the screening, diagnosis and treatment for sleep disorders like sleep apnea. We are pushing that FMCSA and FRA adequately address this and issue a rulemaking to require screening, diagnosis and treatment.”

The Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association opposes many of the NTSB’s safety recommendations. OOIDA contends that there is insufficient data to link sleep apnea to an increase in crashes and that speed limiters would lead to a decrease in highway safety because cars and trucks would be traveling at different speeds.

Michael Brown, chief of police for Alexandria, Va., testified that human error is the main reason for crashes.

“Most of the crashes that are occurring are directly related to bad behavior by the participants whether it be a pedestrian, a bicyclist or some motorists,” Brown said. “Very few of them are related to mechanical issues. People make bad choices, and people get hurt.”

Brown said distracted driving was a big factor. Specifically for truck drivers, Brown said distractions can be caused by working on the truck’s electronic logging device. The comment was an intriguing one as ELDs, which track a driver’s hours of service, became mandated in December 2017 and were touted as a way to boost safety. Preliminary statistics indicate that the ELD mandate has not reduced crashes.

A 41-page study conducted by Northeastern University, the University of Arkansas and Michigan State University showed that the number of weekly truck crashes reported in the study went from 1,717 before the ELD mandate to 1,912 during the light enforcement period and then to 1,703 after strict enforcement began. LL

Mark Schremmer

Mark Schremmer, senior editor, joined Land Line in 2015. An award-winning journalist and former assistant news editor at The Topeka Capital-Journal, he brings fresh ideas, solid reporting skills, and more than two decades of journalism experience to our staff.