Congress and federal safety officials should address the situation promptly.
They can start by ending a controversial exemption that allows the oil-and-gas-drilling industries to bypass some rest requirements imposed on most other truckers.
As a New York Times article explained May 15, the results of the exemption can include excessively long work shifts, lack of sleep and dangerously drowsy drivers.
All sleep-deprived motorists — not just those in industrial fields — pose a potential threat to themselves and other people on the road. This risky behavior is too often excused and overlooked in our on-the-go nation.
Yet drivers involved in oil-and-gas development seem to face heightened risks, in part because they often travel rural highways that have fewer safety features, many times in large rigs. Compounding those issues, the workers may be on the verge of exhaustion because of the industries' looser rest requirements.
The Times described one fatality that occurred when the driver of a drilling-service company's pickup fell asleep at the wheel while taking a crew home from a 21-hour work shift.
Some trucking representatives say the exemptions to the rules are needed, for reasons that include cost savings and the difficulty of enforcing tougher sleep requirements. But their arguments ring hollow when measured against the reality of needless deaths.
Overwhelming truck traffic related to oil-and-gas drilling has become the most prominent complaint in communities where the industry is surging. In North Dakota, for example — home of the Bakken oil rush — "traffic fatalities jumped from 105 in 2010 to 148 in 2011, an increase attributed ... to more fatal accidents in the oil patch," reported the Williston, N.D., Herald.
If drilling continues to escalate, as it has in recent years in more populous areas of the nation, it will be more important than ever to ensure that crews and drivers involved in such activities are not impaired by overwork and fatigue when they hit the road.
The current exemption should end, and be replaced with inspections and stronger enforcement of rest rules.
As the Times noted, the National Transportation Safety Board opposed oil-field exemptions because they raise risks for workers and jeopardize the rest of the driving public.
Federal safety officials should listen to that good advice.
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