Sunday, August 24, 2003

Police focus on tired truckers

Despite gains, concerns remain

By David B. Caruso
The Associated Press

PHILADELPHIA - Time is money, so Colorado trucker Robert Vollert schedules his time down to the minute on his 1,500-mile cross-country treks, and he has a wireless computer that tracks his position to keep him on schedule.

But, sooner or later, there will be an unexpected delay unloading a shipment, or a bad traffic tie-up, and he'll be faced with a choice: motor on and meet a shipping deadline, or abide federal laws limiting the number of hours he can drive before pulling over to rest.

The temptation to stretch the rules is a strong one, he said.

"I hate to admit it, but probably most of us have done it at some time," said Vollert, resting between assignments Monday at a truck stop in Philadelphia.

Despite a half decade of tougher enforcement measures, authorities say too many truckers regularly break rules limiting how long they can be behind the wheel before they must pull over and rest.

During an annual roadside inspection blitz in June, officials found that the 55,784 truckers they pulled over had committed 1,948 violations of hours-of-service regulations that include limiting drivers to no more than 10 straight hours on the road before taking an eight hour break, and no more than 15 hours of work in a single day.

The number of "out of service" orders issued annually to drivers for hours-of-service infractions, or for failing to accurately log their driving time, rose from 19,398 in 1999 to 22,149 in 2001, according to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration.

The rules are designed to combat trucker fatigue. Authorities hope to save another 75 lives annually by requiring drivers to get 10 hours rest between shifts, rather than eight, starting next year.

Truckers say the fatigue problem is blown out of proportion, and the thousands of tickets merely nitpick drivers for minor infractions and do little to make the road safer.

Vollert, of Colorado Springs, said there are countless times when drivers feel strong and fresh, but have run out of legal work hours.

"So you stop, and you radio and say you will be late ... but it's ridiculous," he said. "If a driver is tired, he knows it, and he should rest. But he shouldn't have to because of some rule, based on a study by someone who's never driven a truck. The government should keep its nose in its own business."

Government has done just the opposite. Nearly 2.8 million roadside inspections were conducted nationwide in 2001, up from 2.4 million in 1999. The annual "Roadcheck" inspection blitz, sponsored by The Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance, performed 13,000 more inspections this year than in 2000.

Pennsylvania is one of several states that has intensified oversight.

Under a statewide initiative called "Project No," roadside inspections of trucks have soared in recent years. From 1998 to 2001, the number of "out-of-service" orders issued for carrying inaccurate log books or violating hours rules climbed from 3,414 to 5,068.

In July, a federal grand jury indicted a Pennsylvania trucking company and eight drivers on charges that they falsified log books. Among those accused was a driver who smashed his rig into a funeral procession, killing two people, on I-476 outside Philadelphia.

Trucking industry groups contend that such crashes are rare, and that the percentage of scofflaws on the road is small.

"The vast, vast, vast majority of truck drivers follow the rules and live by their logbook," said Mike Russell, spokesman for the American Trucking Associations.

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