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Jeffrey Meldon
Jeffrey Meldon
Contributor •

Asleep at the Wheel?

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A big rig driver battles drowsiness on a 40-hour haul, a cell phone distracts him, and a school bus is stopped directly ahead on a busy highway in afternoon traffic.

Such was the horrifying scene in September 2008 when an 18-wheel tractor trailer slammed into the rear of a school bus that was safely stopped on U.S. 301 near Citra, Marion County, Florida leaving one 8th grade student dead and a school bus in flames.

As an experienced accident attorney (personal injury lawyer) proudly serving Ocala and the surounding area I strongly urge legislative reform to:

  • Create a zero tolerance policy for truck drivers and cell phone use while driving
  • Reduce the number of hours truckers can consecutively and cumulatively drive;
  • Force trucking companies to take responsibility for their drivers; and
  • Move school bus stops away from highways.

Florida Highway Patrol’s (FHP) final analysis of the tragedy highlights many troubling facts. FHP issued a statement this week, naming sleeplessness as the main culprit. One witness reported that the driver may have been asleep because the truck did not even attempt to swerve to avoid the school bus.

Disturbingly, however, it is reported that only moments before the truck smashed into the school bus, the trucker had finished a cell phone call and placed the phone in the cup holder. FHP’s analysis seemingly discounts the cell phone as a contributing factor, even though it is widely accepted that cell phone use while driving is as bad as driving drunk with a .08 blood alcohol level. Studies show that motorists who are distracted by cell phones are about five times more likely to get in a car accident than undistracted drivers. Plus, drivers who use their cell phones are about 9 times slower to hit their brakes. Big rigs and cell phones don’t mix!

Also alarming is Comtrak, the trucking company, and its lack of oversight of the trucker’s travel log and federal sleep requirements. According to Comtrak’s website, it has more than 650 18-wheel tractor trailers in the Southeast. That is 650 potential accidents waiting to happen because of driver drowsiness. A greater oversight regarding the drivers’ travel logs may reduce the number of fatalities caused by overwork and sleeplessness. It’s time for trucking companies to take responsibility!

More concerning is the failure of Rep. Chuck Chestnut’s bill, filed in February 2009, to prohibit school districts from locating school bus stops on busy highways. Motivated by the death of the 8th grade student, Rep. Chestnut, Gainesville, lobbied to remove all bus stops from highways by 2011. Tragically, the bill was opposed by school officials and failed in the Legislature this year. How many more lives will we lose before the Legislature takes action to protect Florida’s school children on busy roads? School busses stopped on high-speed highways are sitting targets for semis!

Are truckers the only ones asleep at the wheel?