Susan Walsh / AP

Trucker exhaustion poses grave danger to US motorists, say labor experts

Deadly accident involving comedian Tracy Morgan highlights long-standing safety concerns about trucking industry

Truck driver fatigue caused by working unpredictable schedules and unreasonably long hours places millions of U.S. motorists at risk each day, according to labor experts who pointed to the National Transportation Safety Board’s (NTSB) recent announcement that fatigue was to blame for an accident that killed comedian James McNair and critically injured fellow comedian Tracy Morgan last year.

In June 2014 a Walmart truck slammed into a limousine van carrying the two men and five other passengers was driven by someone who had not slept in 28 hours, according to an NTSB report released Tuesday.

Keith Holloway, a spokesman for the agency, told Al Jazeera in an email that exhaustion is a persistent danger for commercial truck drivers and those who share the road with them.

“Fatigue has been an issue the NTSB has seen repeatedly,” he wrote. “It is not the sole cause of truck crashes, but it is one of the leading causes, and therefore the NTSB is continuing to highlight and make recommendations to combat the issue.”

It is difficult to track how many truck drivers suffer from fatigue or how frequently it contributes to accidents. But the Department of Transportation estimates that it is a factor in roughly 13 percent of fatal crashes caused by truck drivers.

Nellie Brown, the director of Workplace Health and Safety Programs at the Cornell University School of Industrial and Labor Relations, said drivers’ schedules are to blame. “A lot of their schedules are erratic, so people don’t truly have regular sleeping hours,” she said. “You end up with people who are horribly sleep deprived, and this kind of problem is a terribly nasty one.”

Chronically fatigued truck drivers present a danger not just to other people on the road. According to Brown, they are more likely to suffer from long-term health issues such as diabetes, cancer and various heart conditions. She said the proliferation of online ordering and just-in-time delivery practices must take a large share of the blame.

“We’re just asking more of the human body and brain than we can really do, and we’re creating the expectation that people can order things and have them by the next day,” she said.

Others have pointed the finger at declining union membership in the trucking industry. Labor membership has been on the decline across the U.S. for decades. From 1970 and 1990, the percentage of for-hire truck drivers who were union members dropped from 60 percent to 25 percent. As of 2014, the Bureau of Labor Statistics found that just 17.4 percent of workers in transportation and material moving occupations are represented by unions.

Art Wheaton, the director of western New York labor and environmental programs at Cornell University, said unions representing truck drivers tend to bargain for additional safety provisions to fight exhaustion and then see to it those provisions are enforced.

“Many of the nonunionized companies tend to try to reduce costs, and sometimes it is at the expense of reduced safety, not only for the driver but for the general public,” he said.

Walmart spokesman Randy Hargrove said in a statement to Al Jazeera that the retail giant is “consistently recognized by the industry as having one of the safest fleets in the country” and that it has strengthened its safety measures since the 2014 collision.

“We are in the process of implementing a comprehensive fatigue management program that takes into account driver commutes,” he said. 

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