The Illinois State Police have been investigating the activities of the truck driver involved in the fatal Amtrak collision near Bourbannais, IL, two years ago. Preliminary findings, reported by the Chicago Tribune on March 15 could have major implications for the hours-of-service rules being revised by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA).
The crash, which killed 11 and seriously injured 122, occurred when the 14-car City of New Orleans Amtrak passenger train struck the rear of a tractor-trailer unit at a busy rail-grade crossing.
According to the article, investigators have determined that John Stokes may have been on duty for as many as 30 hours prior to the crash and that he was fueling his vehicle at an Ohio truck stop some 275 miles from Bourbannais at 3:32 p.m. on the day of the crash. That finding disproves Stokes' previous statement that he was home that afternoon, resting for the scheduled nighttime run hauling steel from the mill just adjacent to the Bourbannais crash scene. The article also reported that investigators found receipts from a truck stop in Indiana, indicating a fuel stop en route to Ohio.
The findings will be detailed in a National Transportation Safety Board report that is set for publication later this year.
Based on information from the newspaper article, here's what I think happened. It appears that Stokes was trying to “drop” the Ohio round-trip because he would have been unable to log the steel haul out of Bourbannais on the evening of the crash. His last logbook entry was 8:15 a.m. Stokes first told investigators that he parked his truck at the terminal around 2:30 p.m. that afternoon and drove home in his car to rest. But fuel receipts and eyewitness accounts suggest he was on duty for more than 30 hours. In fact, a steel warehouse worker said a weary-looking Stokes told him he was battling severe fatigue.
Most accounts of the incident have focused on the driver's actions leading up to the crash, noting that he could face federal log falsification charges and other state charges. Other accounts have focused on whether Stokes went around the crossing gates in an attempt to beat the train to the grade crossing.
These findings have huge implications for our industry. Just over a year ago, FMCSA published an hours-of-service rulemaking proposal that included a continuous 10-hour off-duty period, two additional rest break hours, a “weekend” provision and mandatory onboard recorders, or black boxes.
The rulemaking was met with outcries from our industry as people calculated how many more trucks and drivers would be needed. There was also a good deal of furor over the economic burden and privacy concerns related to the black box requirement.
But the results of the Illinois tractor-trailer/Amtrak crash will add nothing but credibility to those with opposing views, who claim “the problem of truck drivers working beyond the legal time limits is rampant and is difficult to prosecute because drivers often keep two sets of logbooks.”
In light of these findings, just imagine trying to convince a congressional committee there's really no need for onboard recorders.
As I've said before, my advice is that you seriously examine your methods of controlling driver hours. Go beyond mere paperwork compliance and driver log audits. Take a close look at how driver workloads are being assigned and evaluate what mechanisms you have in place to prevent blatant violations (dropped trips, for example) and system abuse by drivers hungry for bigger paychecks.
Then prepare for the inevitable. Act as if computerized hours-of-service recorders were in each of your trucks. Evaluate how such equipment will alter your operation. Implement new policies, procedures and controls that will be compatible with revised hours-of-service rules.
And when the new rules arrive, I bet you'll be more than ready.
Jim York manages a national risk engineering transportation team for Zurich Insurance, Fredericksburg, Va.