What I know about D.O.T. Hours-Of-Service Laws

A tragic accident on I-88 Monday night killed an Illinois Tollway worker and severely injured a State Trooper.  An article in the Chicago Tribune gives details about charges filed against the truck driver alleged to have broken Department of Transportation laws regarding hours of service.

Read the story, then meet me back here in a few minutes.

2 rules are mentioned in the story above: The 14-Hour rule the 11-Hour rule. Simplified, they mean this: No driver requiring to log hours may be on duty for more than 14 hours per day, nor may a driver spend more than 11 hours driving in a day.

On the surface, this doesn’t appear to be an abnormal expectation for a driver. Per the news story, he loaded in the Chicago area, delivered to Nebraska (where in Nebraska, we haven’t been told), picked up another load in Council Bluffs, Iowa, and returned to Chicago. For example’s sake, Omaha is on the state line with Iowa, with Council Bluffs only a few miles back east across the Missouri River.

The driver starts his day in ‘Chicago’ (we don’t know exactly where he picked up his first load) at 8:00 am Sunday, and leaves with a loaded truck at 2:30. He has now been on duty for 6.5 hours. Per the 14-Hour rule, mentioned in the article as one of the regulations he allegedly violated, he has until 10:00 pm Sunday to complete his day, after which, per DOT regulations, he’s required to be off-duty for 8 continuous hours. He has yet to use any of his 11 driving hours; the 7.5 hours remaining in his day can all be spent driving. With a Chicago-to-Omaha journey being about 465 miles, that’s an average of 62mph, well under the speed limit, and perfectly legal.

It gets fuzzy here. We don’t know what the driver does upon his arrival in Nebraska, nor at what time he arrives.  If he had to spend 6.5 hours loading his truck in Chicago, does he have to do the unloading as well? In a perfect scenario, he goes to sleep for 8 hours, waking at 6am Sunday. He drives to Council Bluffs, which is only 10-15 miles from Omaha, picks up his return freight, and heads back to Chicago. But this is another unknown: How much time did he have to spend in Council Bluffs? Did he have to load his truck here as well, and did that also take him 6.5 hours? Given 30 minutes of driving to get from Nebraska to Iowa, that means 7 hours of his work day would be used before he begins the drive to Chicago. Assuming he’s on the road then at 1:00pm, 450 miles in his remaining 7 hours averages out at just over 64mph. The speed limit in Iowa for trucks is 70; in Illinois it’s 65. He’s pushing it, but I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt. That puts him back in Chicago with his return load at 8:00pm. That means, at 9:45pm, when police say the accident occurred, he would already be safely off the road.

So…Why didn’t he sleep?

For starters, as I’ve mentioned, we don’t know where in Nebraska he unloaded. We don’t know how much time, if any, he spent doing the labor to unload the truck.  Nor do we know how much time he spent in Iowa loading his truck for the return to Chicago.  I’m sure investigators already know the answers to these questions. I can assure you they’re also talking to representatives of his company, specifically his dispatcher(s). Did they know he hadn’t slept? Did they assign him a return load they should have known he wouldn’t be able to complete safely and legally?  Did the driver himself address these logistics, only to be pressured into “getting the job done” the way he was told to do it?

As a former dispatcher of long-haul movers, one of the variables I always faced was trying to set a driver up on loads in respect to his hours of service. If I offer a load, and a driver states he is “out of hours,” the conversation is over. It wasn’t up to me to determine if the driver truly was out of hours, or if he simply wasn’t interested in the load I had planned for him. (As an independent contractor, it was always within a driver’s rights to turn down any load offered to them.) The moment I try to persuade him to violate the law, I’ve stepped in it big time. Something goes wrong, and I’m the one who encouraged him, who pushed him, to drive too far, to stay awake too long. And as an hourly employee, I’ve dragged my employer with me.

Was this driver an employee, or a contractor? Generally, they are dispatched differently as to what is expected of them in regards to accepting load assignments. It is also within the realm of possibility that, if he was operating as an independent contractor, he arranged his loads on his own, and his dispatchers were unaware of his plans. Not likely, but possible.

Yes, this was a tragic accident. My heart goes out the the victims’ families, as well as the driver. There was no intention here of hitting anyone Sunday night. But there are laws in place to prevent this type of accident, and the charges brought by the DuPage County State’s Attorney allege he was in violation of these laws. They aren’t guidelines to be considered; they are the law. Unfortunately for all involved, they apparently weren’t followed, and the consequences are horrific. I’ve long been an opponent of our overly-litigious society, but this is one of those situations that screams law suit. I’m very interested in how this case will turn out.

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