June 20, 2000 (Washington) -- One by one, the survivors told stories of loved ones lost: Theresa Hamm described the deaths of four family members, including two sisters, in an instant. Daphne Izer fought back tears as she showed a photo of her 17-year-old son, Jeff, who was taken from her without warning.
"It tears me up every time," Izer says of discussing the 1993 accident that killed her son. But, she tells WebMD, "it?s worth it, because we?re going to fight it until changes are made."
What unites Hamm, Izer, and approximately 30 other people who staged a demonstration and press conference outside the U.S. Capitol on Tuesday is the issue of trucker fatigue, which played a role in the tragedies that forever altered their lives. They?re angry about a Department of Transportation proposal that would increase the amount of time long-distance drivers can stay on the road from 10 hours to 12 hours at a stretch.
When the trucker involved in the accident that killed Jeff Izer and three other teens was sentenced to just four months in jail and a $1,000 fine, Daphne Izer decided to become an advocate for safer trucking, she says.
A coalition of consumer groups, including Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety as well as Ralph Nader?s Public Citizen, backs the families. The coalition says the new rule -- the first update since 1937 -- would make the drivers more vulnerable to fatigue-induced accidents.
"Is it really worth risking the lives of our children and families just to push merchandise and other cargo a little farther down the road in a day?" says Jilly Claybrook, Public Citizen?s president. The rule springs from the newly created Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, an agency within the DOT whose role is to promote highway safety.
According to Public Citizen, fatigue is a factor in 40% of all heavy truck crashes. It?s estimated that more than 5,200 people were killed and 127,000 injured in large-truck crashes last year in the U.S.
"What happened to my family was not an accident. It was a violent crash. ... It was a crash caused by a fatigued truck driver," Hamm says of the 1995 accident in North Carolina.
Veteran trucker John Harris told the group that he was laid off after he complained to management about the toll fatigue was taking on his performance. "Unfit carriers [are] out there right now, more than I can tell you about, hauling fuel," he said.
The protestors? situation is complicated by the fact that they favor parts of the new rule, including its emphasis on mandatory rest periods within a 24-hour cycle for drivers. The old rule stipulates a maximum of 10 hours on with eight hours off; the new rule simply allows a maximum of 12 hours on the road within each 24-hour period. The safety advocates also back the on-board recorders that would replace the frequently ignored log books in place now.
Secretary of Transportation Rodney Slater has met with families and advocacy groups to discuss the proposals several times, but so far he?s been unwilling to budge on the proposed new rule. But Slater has just announced that the comment period for the rule will be extended another 90 days, until the fall.
Even so, DOT spokesman Mike Longo says the opponents misunderstand the rule. He says it actually reduces the time a driver is on the road. That?s because under the current system, in the "worst-case scenario" a trucker could work 20 hours out of a 28-hour period. Under the new system, a driver could only work up to 12 hours in a day.
"After the 12th hour there?s a huge fatigue increase," Longo tells WebMD. " We?re trying to come up with not only a safe rule, which is number one, but also one that will work in today?s economy."
Parts of the rule are also under challenge by the trucking industry, and the changes could be tied up in the U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee indefinitely.
"We think the number of crashes would actually go up, when [the Department of Transportation believes] the number of crashes would come down," says David Osiecki, vice president for safety and operations of the American Trucking Association. "We base that on the fact that more trucks and more drivers in the industry are operating during daylight hours."