More people staying home and driving less during the COVID-19 pandemic has led to a drop in the number of accidents, but new data suggests that emptier roads may actually be more dangerous to those who are driving on them.
With this in mind, companies that have drivers who are plying the roads now have special issues to contend with during this unprecedented time. And because of a rule suspension for long-haul truckers, there could be a rise in truck accidents due to fatigued drivers.
Preliminary data from the National Safety Council shows the fatality rates per miles driven increased by 14% nationally in March (from March 2019), when most of the country was under shelter-at-home orders.
Additionally, there has been an 87% increase in tickets to drivers going more than 100 mph amid the COVID-19 shutdown in California, as many drivers are apparently taking advantage of the open roads, according to the California Highway Patrol.
Those increases, though, coincided with an 18.6% drop in average miles driven in March compared to the same period last year.
New rules complicate matters
The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) has issued an emergency declaration that suspended long-haul trucking hours of service regulations that limit the number of hours drivers are allowed to drive in a week. The regulations have been in place since the 1930s.
Observers worry that this could result in more crashes due to fatigue if drivers start spending more hours behind the wheel than the suspended regulations permitted.
The emergency declaration puts on hold the weekly 60/70 rule, which allows drivers to work no more than 60 hours on duty over seven consecutive days, or 70 hours over eight days.
It also suspends another part of regulations that bar continued operation without 30-minute breaks. The goal of this regulation was to avoid the food and essential goods shortages (think about the toilet paper shortage in March and April).
At the same time, rules requiring drivers to be off duty for 10 hours before driving again are still in place.
The challenge for employers will be to keep their drivers as safe as possible, and that should include avoiding driver fatigue at all costs as the resulting accidents are often deadly and costly both in terms of human lives and property damage.
Fatigue plays a part in 13% of truck crashes, according to the FMCSA, while other fatigue-related factors such as “inattention” and “driver pressured to operate even though fatigued” come into play 8.5% and 3.2% of the time, respectively.
There could be an increase in these types of accidents during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, what’s not clear is if the reduced amount of traffic will offset the risks of truck driver fatigue.
Another factor that could contribute to driver fatigue is the closure of rest stops and restaurants to enforce social distancing rules. And despite truckers not being required to take 30-minute breaks, they will still need to stop to use a restroom, eat, refuel and stretch their legs.
So many regular stopping places being closed could contribute to drivers not getting the rest they would normally get during these breaks. At the same time, if they reroute their journeys to pass places that are open for them to rest and eat, they may be driving in unfamiliar territory. And “unfamiliarity with roadway” is a contributing factor in 22% of truck crashes.
Finally, truckers may also be fatigued if they are especially busy at this time and working more hours than usual.
What you can do
You should hold safety meetings with your drivers, with the following top of mind:
- Require them to limit the number of hours they drive in a day and week, and to take rest breaks for at least 30 minutes during a shift to eat and rest.
- Tell them to resist the urge to speed on roads with less congestion and require them to observe the speed limit.
- Tell them to be aware of drivers who are taking advantage of the roads and speeding excessively.
- Require them to not use smartphones or other devices that can lead to distracted driving.
- When in urban and suburban settings, they should be aware that there may be increased pedestrian and bicycle traffic as people have been spending more time walking and biking during this time.