Q: “My high school friend’s son was going to Humboldt State for a free college tour from Southern California and was on the bus that crashed with the FedEx truck last week on Interstate 5 in Red Bluff. He was seriously injured but, thankfully, not killed. There is talk that the driver of the truck may have fallen asleep and crossed the median into the bus. This is such a senseless loss. What rules exist to protect people from this happening?”
A: Sharon, this is such a heart-wrenching tragedy. Everyone with children, myself included, feels a sense of shock and vulnerability in the wake of such devastation.
As trucks and buses often engage in interstate transit, they fall under the state and federal jurisdictions for the purposes of regulation and accident investigation. The federal Department of Transportation issues regulations through the federal Motor Carrier Administration, and in California, the California Vehicle Code sets forth driver restrictions. These regulations basically mirror each other, for the most part.
When there are collisions of this magnitude, the California Highway Patrol mobilizes a major-accident investigation team, and the DOT utilizes the National Transportation Safety Board to analyze collisions to determine what happened and who is responsible. The NTSB’s role goes beyond investigating. It makes recommendations to the DOT, the Motor Carrier Administration and other relevant agencies as to what rules might be instituted to avoid similar collisions or to improve safety measures to make collisions more survivable.
Safety regulations are clearly set forth in the federal Motor Carrier Safety Act and the California Vehicle Code. Rules in the federal context are made by the agencies, published in the Federal Register (this is almost like a diary of federal actions) and then codified in the Code of Federal Regulations.
As to the issue of driver fatigue, one must examine the hours of a driver’s operation before a collision. These hours are tightly regulated and updates were implemented last year. These hours fall generally into four categories: off duty, on duty (not driving), driving and sleeping-berth time (for long-haul drivers with sleeper cabs). These hours must be meticulously maintained and constantly updated in the driver’s logbook, which must be kept in the vehicle at all times and be presented to the CHP or other officials on demand. Do an online search for “Federal Motor Carrier Administration hours of operation logbook examples” or a graphic depiction of a logbook interpretation.
For vehicles transporting goods, like the FedEx truck, there is a driving window of 14 consecutive hours. After 10 consecutive hours off duty, a driver may be on duty no more than 14 hours. Within the 14-hour driving window, generally a driver may drive up to 11 hours. A driver must take a 30-minute rest break after eight hours of driving. Additionally, regulations limit the total number of driving hours to no more than 60 hours in a seven-day period or no more than 70 hours in an eight-day period.
The regulations require a 34-hour restart off-duty period between these cycles, meaning the driver has to be off duty and not driving for that period. This is all designed to reduce driver fatigue and to prevent collisions. Bus drivers, while having similar types of requirements, have different corresponding time periods of operation. I will expound on them next week.
Given that the driver’s logbook was likely destroyed in the fire, a forensic examination of miles traveled, and hours between points of travel, will have to be undertaken. Sometimes (not saying that is the case here), drivers maintain two sets of logbooks, one that is presented upon demand to the CHP and one that is presented to the employer for payment.
As you can see, these regulations can be quite complex. I have handled a number of these tragic cases and can tell you that the complexities of such an investigation require resources and experience. Tell your friend to make sure to get an experienced attorney to guide her and her child through this process.
Christopher B. Dolan is owner of the Dolan Law Firm. Email questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.