January 2021 brought a new administration and a new Congress in Washington and, with the changing of the guard, come significant potential changes for the commercial trucking industry. This includes potential new requirements for automatic braking systems and speed restrictors on big trucks, new sleep apnea tests for truck drivers, and raising the insurance policy minimums for trucking companies for the first time in over 40 years. Below is what to look out for out of Washington in 2021.
Automatic Emergency Braking Systems to be Required
Automatic emergency braking (AEB) systems will likely be required within the next year for heavy-duty trucks. AEB systems use cameras and radar to sense whether a collision with another object is imminent and automatically applies the brakes to prevent collisions. AEB systems have been found to significantly reduce the frequency of collisions, with the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety finding a 22% reduction in collisions for trucks equipped with forward collision warning AEBs and a 12% reduction in crashes for trucks with any kind of AEB technology.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHSTA), part of the U.S. Department of Transportation, says it intends to move forward with regulations requiring AEB systems for new light- and heavy-duty trucks in 2021. Additionally, both houses of Congress included language in infrastructure bills this summer requiring AEB systems in new commercial trucks. With these new changes, expect newly manufactured trucks to be equipped with AEB systems in the next year and older trucks to be outfitted with AEB systems in the coming years.
Bipartisan Support for Speed Limiters in Semitrucks
On May 25, 2021, Georgia Democrat Lucy McBath and New York Republican John Katko introduced the Cullum Owings Large Truck Safe Operating Speed Act, which requires all new commercial motor vehicles to include speed-limiting technology limiting the top speed to 65 mph. The legislation is named after Cullum Owings, a 22-year-old Atlanta native who died in 2002 after a semitruck on cruise control hit his vehicle at high speeds.
The Cullen Owings Bill has not been put to a vote yet. While Congress has not moved forward with speed-restrictor legislation, federal regulators may soon visit the issue. Back in 2016, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) proposed making a new regulation requiring speed limiters, with broad industry support; however, it went nowhere for several years. With a new presidential administration, expect regulators to revisit the issue again in the coming year and semitrucks to soon be equipped with technology preventing trucks from going over the speed limit.
Sleep Apnea Tests May Soon be Required for Some in CDL Medical Exams
Fatigued driving and sleepiness are major contributing factors in semitruck wrecks, with nearly 13% of all semitruck wrecks being caused by driver fatigue, and sleep apnea is often the reason behind a truck driver’s fatigue. According to a 2020 study by the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute, 46.9% of truck drivers potentially have obstructive sleep apnea, based on the “STOP-Bang” assessment of a driver’s snoring, tiredness, observed apneas, hypertension, body mass index (BMI), age, neck circumference, and gender.
Importantly, under federal law, all commercial truck drivers with a CDL license must undergo a medical screening exam with a licensed medical examiner once very two years. In 2016, federal regulators proposed a new rule requiring drivers with a BMI over 40 to be flagged for sleep apnea screening, and drivers with a BMI over 33 to be flagged for a screening if they meet other criteria; however, the proposed regulation has not yet become law.
The House of Representatives’ infrastructure bill passed in 2021 requires new rules for sleep apnea tests of truck drivers; however, the Senate version of the infrastructure bill does not include similar language. While Congress has not yet moved forward on this issue, with a new presidential administration in office you can expect federal regulators to push for new rules for sleep apnea tests of truck drivers.
Raising Minimum Insurance Requirements in Dispute
The current minimum insurance requirement for commercial interstate freight haulers is $750,000, an amount which has not changed in over 40 years, since 1980. In the decades since, inflation has risen and the cost of care for truck accident victims seriously injured in devastating wrecks has risen far above the present limits.
Representative Chuy Garcia (D-IL) has introduced legislation to raise the required minimum to $2,000,000, a 167% increase. However, as the findings in his proposed bill state, $750,000 in 1980 would have the “same purchasing power as $4,923,153.29 in 2019, if the amount was raised to account for medical-cost inflation.”
Rep. Garcia’s proposed increase passed the House of Representatives as part of its infrastructure package, but it was not included in the Senate’s infrastructure bill this summer. This is after strong opposition for the commercial trucking industry, with the Owner-Operator Independent Drives Association (OOIDA) stating in a letter to Congress that, “increasing the liability requirement will not make highways safer, is wholly unnecessary and would have a severe negative impact on small-business truckers, farmers and manufacturers.”
While increasing minimum insurance coverage may appear at a standstill in Congress, there is a potential for regulators at the FMCSA to push forward with amending the rule and increasing the minimum coverage requirements. In 2014, the FMCSA issued a study stating “the current financial responsibility minimums are inadequate to fully cover the costs of some crashes in light of increased medical costs and revised value of statistical life estimates.” The FMCSA proposed a new rule increasing the minimum insurance requirement; however, the agency withdrew it in 2017. With Congress skipping the matter for the time-being and a new presidential administration in Washington, expect increased pressure to adopt new rules raising insurance minimums.
Here at the Poppe Law Firm, we pride ourselves on our individualized and focused representation of semitruck crash victims and their families. If you or a loved one has been injured in a truck accident, please contact us for a free intake and consultation online or by calling us at 502-895-3400.