The inside story of how the trucking industry and politicians have conspired to make our highways less safe.
WASHINGTON — Illinois State Trooper Douglas Balder sat in his squad car, its red and blue lights strobing into the frozen night of Jan. 27, 2014. He was about to be set on fire.
Balder had stopped to assist a Chicago-bound big rig that had stalled out in the rightmost lane of the Ronald Reagan Memorial Tollway. A heavy-duty tow truck and a bright yellow Tollway assistance vehicle were also pulled over, attending to the stranded semi.
Balder, a Navy reservist and father of two, had his heater cranked against minus-30-degree wind chill. He had positioned his 2011 Crown Victoria behind the Tollway vehicle and switched on his flashers. There were also flares sputtering on the pavement, and the Tollway truck was flashing a large blinking arrow and its amber hazard lights. Visibility on that clear, cold night was excellent — around 10 miles.
Renato Velasquez, who was barreling toward the stopped vehicles in a flatbed big rig loaded with three massive rolls of steel, didn’t see Balder’s flashers. He didn’t see the pulsing arrow or the flares. He didn’t change lanes or take any evasive action until far too late. Velasquez was falling asleep, a court would find later. His truck rammed into Balder’s squad car at 63 miles per hour, according to the National Transportation Safety Board investigation into the accident.
The impact crushed the Crown Vic’s trunk, exploding the gas tank and catapulting the patrol car into a roadside ditch. The three 14,580-pound steel coils chained to Velazquez’s trailer bed burst their restraints. One of the massive rolls struck the cab of the Tollway vehicle, instantly killing its 39-year-old driver Vincent Petrella and injuring Agron Xhelaj, the driver of the stalled truck who was seated beside him.
Balder had lost consciousness when his face hit the steering wheel.
“I woke up a short time later on fire,” he said. “Literally on fire. Burning alive.”
In that moment, Balder didn’t know exactly what had happened. His squad car was half collapsed. The detonated gas tank was spraying fuel and flames through his cab. His only clear thoughts were of survival and of his wife of 14 years, Kimberlie. He yelled out her name.
“A certain degree of that was emotion at the moment, knowing that I might die, screaming to the last person you might love,” he said.
Balder needed to find a way to escape if he was ever going to see his wife and kids again.
He tried to start his engine, then tried to radio for help. Fire was spreading from around the partition behind him, burning his back, head and legs. He couldn’t open his door or window. He tried the switches on his armrest, and the passenger window miraculously cranked down.
“As that cold air came in and swirled that air around, adrenaline set in, and I flew out,” he said. “The only other choice was to sit there and die.”
He tumbled out on the roadside, rolling in the snow to extinguish the flames that had already scorched more than a third of his body. By the time he stumbled around the back of the wreck and back up to the road, local police were arriving to help.
“You got this guy walking up with his skin hanging off his arm,” Balder said. “My pants were all burned off to the skin.”
He spent six weeks in a medically induced coma, three months in the hospital, and needed 10 surgeries and extensive, ongoing rehab to recover.
Increasing Carnage On Our Highways
In the two years since the accident, Balder has had plenty of time to think about what happened to him — and why. On the simplest level, it happened because a criminally negligent driver pushed too hard and crashed. But it is also part of a broader trend of declining safety on the roads after decades of progress — a trend that the United States Congress has aided and abetted by loosening safety rules even as both truck drivers and trucks are being pushed to their limits, just like Renato Velasquez.
Truck-related deaths hit an all-time low during the economic doldrums of 2009, when 2,983 truck accidents killed 3,380 people. But as the economy has recovered, the carnage has been on the rise. In 2013, the most recent year for which finalized statistics are available, 3,541 wrecks killed 3,964 people — an increase of 17.3 percent in just four years. In 2014, the number of deaths resulting from truck accidents was down slightly, but the total number of crashes and injuries increased.
At the same time, Congress has been caving, very quietly, to lobbying from trucking interests that want to roll back, block or modify at least a half-dozen important safety regulations. Significant parts of the hauling industry have long opposed many of the federal rules governing working hours, rest periods, size and weight limits, and safety standards. When the Great Recession began in 2008, profit margins for shippers shrank and bankruptcies rose, prompting a desperate industry to step up its lobbying effort.
Perhaps, the trucking companies’ lobbyists suggested to Congress, trucks could haul loads heavier than the federal 80,000-pound limit, which would allow them to deliver more goods with each truck. Maybe they could have longer double trailers, increasing the limit from 28 feet for each unit to 33 feet — turning each rig into an 80-foot-long behemoth, as long as an eight-story building is tall. Or they could let truck drivers be more flexible with their rest breaks, which would allow them to work up to 82 hours a week instead of the already-exhausting limit of 70. Maybe trucking firms could reduce labor costs by hiring lower-paid drivers, younger than 21 — as young as 18. Maybe they could stop federal regulators from raising insurance requirements that were set during the Reagan administration. Maybe the federal motor carrier safety ratings for unsafe trucking companies could be kept secret.
Indeed, the trucking industry is trying to do all of those things. If they are successful, these changes would amount to the most significant overhaul of highway safety rules in decades. But most people don’t know such sweeping revisions are even being considered.
Asleep At The Wheel
The latest round of congressional wrangling started with a fight over snoring, or, more specifically, the obstructive sleep apnea that causes it.
For decades, mounting evidence has shown that sleep apnea, a common disorder, can cause perilous levels of fatigue in drivers, pilots, train engineers and others who need to remain alert at work. The airways of people who suffer from apnea close repeatedly while they sleep, interrupting their breathing dozens of times an hour. They often don’t notice the interruptions, but it leaves them exhausted and prone to doze off during the day. Behind the wheel of a large, speeding vehicle, the results are predictably catastrophic.
It’s not just a problem for truckers. As investigators sorted through a Dec. 1, 2013, Metro-North commuter train derailment in New York that killed four people, they found the engineer at the controls, William Rockefeller, had fallen asleep. His shift had recently been changed, which can cause sleep problems in itself, but he also had undiagnosed sleep apnea.
Since 2008, experts with the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, which regulates the trucking industry, have recommended that drivers get checked for the condition and treated if necessary. The NTSB lists sleep apnea as a problem across the transportation industry, and often points to the Metro-North wreck as evidence of why the trucking industry in particular needs better regulation — its rules are the weakest of the major transportation sectors.
The risk of apnea rises dramatically with weight gain, and approximately two-thirds of all truck drivers are believed to be obese, according to a recent federal survey. Other studies have also found that truckers are much more likely to be overweight than workers in other fields. And extensive research links sleep deprivation to heightened crash risks; even moderate tiredness can impair a driver as much as being legally intoxicated. A recent Harvard study found truck drivers with obstructive sleep apnea are five times more likely to crash than their fellows.
To do a better job dealing with the issue, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration floated a proposal in April 2012 that would have required overweight truckers to get checked for sleep apnea. The industry was livid. Some drivers claimed there was no evidence that sleep apnea raised the risk of crashes, while others alleged the proposal was a scheme to enrich sleep doctors.
Independent truckers are especially loath to admit a problem because treatment can take them off the road for a month or more. And sleep tests and treatment cost thousands of dollars for people with inadequate or no health insurance.
Despite acknowledging the problem and the need to deal with it, FMCSA backed off its push to update the apnea rules. Just a week after posting the proposal, the agency withdrew it, claiming it was published in error.
Going After Congress
The trucking industry did not let the matter drop, though. Instead, its lobbyists launched a pre-emptive strike.
Normally, when an agency like FMCSA targets a specific issue, it uses its existing authority to propose binding guidance. Taking this route — which the agency started to do with apnea — is easier than embarking on a full federal rulemaking process, which can take years, requires even more extensive input from the public and industry, and often triggers long legal battles.
Rather than taking the chance that FMCSA might resurrect its proposal on apnea screening, industry lobbyists approached allies in Congress to write a law that would require the agency to follow the longer, more cumbersome formal rulemaking course.
Trucking industry lobbyists sold the bill as a safety enhancement. In their telling, it sounded like truckers were asking regulators to come up with a way to screen for dangerous apnea, not blocking an effort to enhance screenings.
Members of Congress bought the spin. “I can only hope that the agency, which has a long docket, in fact gets to this rulemaking,” said Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) in a brief discussion on the the House floor. “I’m not sure why the agency was going to do guidance instead, but this is a very important issue. There have been accidents attributed to sleep apnea.”
Then-House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) allowed the bill’s sponsors to bring it to the floor on Sept. 26, 2013, when the country was focused on the prospect of a looming government shutdown in the next four days. Safety advocates had little opportunity to raise objections. The bill passed with no opposition and was sent to the Senate. It passed the upper chamber a week later, in the middle of the shutdown, with no debate or even a roll-call vote. The legislation was slipped into a string of unanimous consent requests, lost among resolutions supporting democracy in Venezuela and recognizing Danish Holocaust survivors. President Barack Obama signed the law on Oct. 15, without comment, just before the government shutdown ended.
Less than two months later, the Metro-North engineer took a curve along the Hudson River in the Bronx at 82 miles per hour — 52 mph over the limit — while he dozed at the controls. Seven cars derailed. Three of the four people killed were ejected from the train. No one noticed that Congress had just made it more difficult to screen truckers for similar sleep disorders.