What Happens When a Truck Driver Falls Asleep at the Wheel?

In 2015, drowsy driving caused 41,000 injuries and more than 800 deaths across the nation. While federal and Virginia trucking regulations limit the number of hours a truck driver can operate their vehicle, drivers sometimes experience pressure from their employers to violate these rules so they can make deliveries faster.

Keep reading to learn more about the risks of drowsy truck driving and find out what you should do after a fatigue-related truck accident.

Research Shows Drowsy Driving Is Comparable to Drunk Driving

According to a study from the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, your chances of crashing while driving on only four or five hours of sleep are the same as a someone with a 0.08 blood-alcohol content (BAC), which is the legal limit in Virginia. If you’ve slept for less than four hours, your driving skills equal those of someone with a BAC of between 0.12 and 0.15. At that point, you’re 11.5 times more likely to crash your car compared to a sober and well-rested driver.

People who are fatigued struggle with decision-making, easily lose focus and concentration, and respond slowly to events around them. All these factors can contribute to a crash. The effects of drowsy driving are serious enough for the drivers of ordinary passenger vehicles, but when the driver in question is operating a tractor-trailer that weighs up to 80,000 pounds, even one moment of inattention or dozing can lead to catastrophic results.

RELATED ARTICLE: These 6 Factors Cause Most Truck Accidents

Hours-of-Service Rules Limit How Much Time a Truck Driver Can Spend on the Road

Both state and federal hours-of-service (HOS) rules limit the number of hours a truck driver can operate their vehicle. In Virginia, these rules state that most truck drivers cannot drive for more than 14 or 16 hours before they take a 10-hour break. HOS rules also place limits on the number of hours a trucker can drive during a given week.

In addition to the limits on driving time, the regulations that establish HOS rules require truck drivers to document their time (including on-duty and off-duty hours) in a logbook. Most of these logbooks are electronic today, but some drivers who work for smaller companies still use old-fashioned paper logbooks that are easier to falsify.

Drivers and Trucking Companies Sometimes Falsify Driver Logs to Hide Hours-of-Service Violations

Trucking companies sometimes pressure their drivers to violate HOS rules. The trucking industry is highly competitive, and unethical companies encourage their drivers to drive extra-long hours without breaks, prioritizing profits over driver safety. These patterns of employer coercion persist within the trucking industry despite attempts at reform.

As one example, the Virginia trucking company Beam Brothers Trucking made national news in 2017 when its executives admitted to falsifying decades worth of logbooks and forcing its drivers to run unreasonably long and unsafe routes. Statements from the U.S. Attorney’s office showed that the charges against Beam Brothers Trucking included:

  • Knowingly violating federal hours-of-service rules for almost two decades
  • Encouraging drivers to falsify their driving logs
  • Refusing to pay drivers for short rest breaks
  • Setting unreasonably long truck routes, which forced drivers to travel on minimal sleep for weeks at a time; drivers said they were so fatigued that they fell asleep at the wheel and sometimes took illegal drugs to stay awake

Eventually, a federal judge sentenced four top executives from Beam Brothers to home confinement and probation. The company also had to pay millions of dollars in fines.

While the scope and severity of Beam Brothers’ violations stand out, they’re just especially prominent examples of a widespread problem. According to the Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance’s (CVSA’s) report from its 2018 International Roadcheck event, HOS violations are still the most common driver-related violations that its inspectors find during safety inspections.

An Experienced Truck Accident Lawyer Can Identify Trucking Violations and Prove Liability

If you suspect that drowsy driving or hours-of-service violations contributed to the truck accident that injured you, you should immediately contact an experienced Virginia truck wreck lawyer. Trucking companies and drivers don’t have to keep their logbooks forever. If you wait too long, you might lose valuable evidence that supports your claims against the driver and the company.

RELATED ARTICLE: Why an Attorney Investigation Matter for Your Truck Accident Case

Federal law only requires trucking companies to preserve their logbooks for six months. After six months passes, most companies quickly destroy their logs. And some unscrupulous truck companies knowingly break the law and destroy their logs much sooner. As a result, it’s critical that you work with an attorney who can move to preserve this valuable data as quickly as possible.

Even in the absence of data from electronic or paper logs, experienced attorneys have other ways to identify drowsy driving and HOS violations. For example, our attorneys at Phelan Petty sometimes use data from the telematics systems in commercial trucks. These complex systems record a truck’s movement and braking patterns, and some systems even record the driver’s in-cabin behaviors. An attorney can also use subpoenas, document reviews, and carefully crafted cross-examination strategies to identify inconsistencies in accounts from the driver or truck company.

Phelan Petty: A Sophisticated Approach to Truck Accident Claims in Virginia

At Phelan Petty, we focus our practice on handling the most complex injury claims for the most severely injured victims, which includes truck accident claims. Our focus on handling a small number of challenging cases gives us the time and resources to thoroughly investigate our clients’ claims and demand accountability for their injuries.

To get an assessment of your case from one of our attorneys at no charge, fill out our online contact form or call us at 804-980-7100.


Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance. (2018, September 12). CVSA releases 2018 International Roadcheck results [press release]. Retrieved from https://cvsa.org/news-entry/2018-roadcheck-results/

Drowsy driving. (n.d). National Highway Transportation Safety Administration. Retrieved from https://www.nhtsa.gov/risky-driving/drowsy-driving

Maximum driving time for property-carrying vehicles. Virginia Adm. Code 19VAC30-20-205 § 395.3 (2006). Retrieved from https://law.lis.virginia.gov/admincode/title19/agency30/chapter20/section205/

Summary of hours of service regulations. (2017, March 9). Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. Retrieved from https://www.fmcsa.dot.gov/regulations/hours-service/summary-hours-service-regulations

Teft, B. (2016, December). Acute sleep deprivation and risk of motor vehicle crash involvement. Washington, DC: AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety. Retrieved from http://aaafoundation.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/12/AcuteSleepDeprivationCrashRisk.pdf

Virginia carrier and execs sentenced, fined. (2017, December 1). Truckers News. Retrieved from https://www.truckersnews.com/virginia-carrier-and-execs-sentenced-fined/