CHICAGO – A deadly crash in Illinois involving a truck driver accused of staying at the wheel for more than 35 hours without a long enough break prompted a call Thursday for tougher oversight of drivers and trucking companies.
Monday's crash on an interstate near Aurora in northern Illinois killed a tollway worker and critically injured a state trooper who were assisting a stranded driver. The trucker has been charged with operating a commercial motor vehicle while fatigued. He's also accused of falsifying his logbook of work hours.
U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois sent a letter Thursday to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration urging it to investigate the crash and strengthen enforcement of its rules on maximum work hours.
"Furthermore, I hope you will look into any other similar incidents and take the necessary steps to ensure that every trucking company takes these federal rules seriously," Durbin wrote.
Prosecutors say Renato Velasquez of suburban Chicago had been making runs in Nebraska, Iowa and the Chicago area over a more than 35-hour stretch behind the wheel and with just 3½ hours of sleep. His attorney says Valasquez simply did not see the stopped vehicles' flashing emergency lights and that there is no evidence he had fallen asleep.
Federal rules bar commercial truck and bus drivers from sitting behind the wheel for more than 11 hours straight.
The federal government began in 2000 to tighten work hour rules for commercial drivers that had been largely unchanged for decades. That has triggered lawsuits from industry representatives who say the changes are too restrictive and from safety advocates who say they don't go far enough.
Last July, new rules took effect doubling to two the number of consecutive nights of sleep a driver must get to reset a count limiting truckers to 60 hours of driving spread over seven days or to 70 hours spread over eight days.
The industry liked the reset option but objected to doubling the required sleep time to trigger it. It also opposed a requirement that those rest periods be between 1 a.m. and 5 a.m., rather than any time of day or night.
"It is simply a Band-Aid," said Dave Osiecki, executive vice president of American Trucking Associations.
He said the changes are costing the industry billions of dollars in productivity losses while doing nothing to improve safety.
Osiecki said the issue of driver fatigue is complex and requires a more individual approach that, for example, takes into account whether a particular driver is more alert during the day or night.
The federal agency, meanwhile, released a study Thursday by sleep researchers at Washington State University that it said supports the changes that went into effect in July.
That study, involving more than 100 drivers, concluded those who did not adhere to the new rules suffered more lapses in attention, reported greater sleepiness and showed increased lane deviation.
According to the analysis, the new rule will prevent some 1,400 crashes and save 19 lives each year, while impacting the relatively small number of drivers who work more than 70 hours a week.