By LISE FISHER – Sun staff writer / February 19. 2006 6:01AM

A truck driver carrying a gym bag heads for the showers at the Pilot Travel Center in Ocala Thursday evening. Richard Darley has been driving rigs since 1970 and he knows something about driver fatigue.

As Darley ate dinner in the cab of his truck parked at an Ocala truck stop, the 56-year-old trucker said regulations that establish how long a truck driver can operate on the road really don’t make that much difference.

“I don’t care how many rules they write. There’s going to be somebody that breaks them,” Darley said as he watched the sun set over Interstate 75.

The career trucker was talking about federal and state rules governing how long a truck driver can operate a rig before taking a break.

The rules are meant to help truckers combat driver fatigue that can lead to crashes with sometimes tragic results.

Officials investigating a deadly Union County crash that killed seven children last month have noted that, except for a brief nap, the truck driver involved had been awake but not necessarily driving for more than 34 hours before the accident. The tractor-trailer he was driving struck the rear of a car carrying the children. The car had been stopped behind a school bus dropping off students. The crash remains under investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board and the Florida Highway Patrol.

Estimates on the role driver fatigue plays in truck accidents differ. As many as 30 percent to 40 percent of heavy truck accidents may be related to truck driver fatigue, according to data from the National Transportation Safety Board. But the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, when announcing changes last year to hours-of-service rules that regulate how long a trucker can stay on the road, estimated only 5.5 percent of all large truck crashes are fatigue-related.

Florida ranked 21st, tying with Delaware, for the number of truck crash deaths per 100,000 people in 2004, with 2.17 deaths, according to data from the 2004 Fatality Analysis Reporting System and the National Center for Statistics Analysis. Wyoming was first with 8.08 deaths per 100,000 people. Hawaii was last with 0.32.

Darley, who hauls wide loads and is prohibited from driving them except from dawn until dusk, said driver fatigue is “the biggest issue out there.”

“All these companies want this stuff delivered and delivered now,” Darley said.

Darley blamed shippers, not trucking companies, for the pressure some drivers are under to deliver no matter what unforeseen delays, including traffic jams or weather, slow them down.

Brandon Vann, 21, a Texas resident hauling washing powder, said, “It is kind of hard when they give you a load and you have to push it to get it there all the time.”

And finding places to stop and take breaks required by federal and state regulations isn’t always easy, he said. Truck stops, like the one at the Pilot Travel Center in Marion County, only have so much room, and some states don’t allow truckers to pull into rest stops and sleep.

Like Darley, Vann said some drivers will always push the rules.

“You get some people out here who are supertruckers. They’re going to do what they do,” he said.

Federal regulations permit a truck driver to drive a maximum of 11 hours after 10 consecutive hours off duty. They can drive a maximum of 60 hours in a seven-day period or 70 hours during an eight-day period. Before starting a shift that will run for seven or eight days straight, they must take off 34 or more consecutive hours, according to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration.

State rules differ from federal regulations and allow truckers to drive more hours without a break.

A truck driver who operates only within the state and does not transport any hazardous materials requiring a placard can drive up to 15 hours a day, said Sgt. Tim Goodman with the Florida Department of Transportation Office of Motor Carrier Compliance. Truckers can work a maximum 72 hours in any seven consecutive days or 84 hours in eight consecutive days. They must take an eight-hour rest after every 15 hours.

However, legislation is pending this year in Florida that would reduce the length and frequency of road hours.

Daphne Izer, founder and co-chair of Parents Against Tired Truckers, said the federal rules still don’t address the continued problem with driver fatigue.

“Drivers are paid by the mile. Not much is going to change until that changes,” Izer said.

Delays can prompt truckers to falsify logbooks so they can make up time and mileage.

“Oftentimes, loads have to be delivered at any cost and that cost is human lives,” she said. “Granted, the truck driver is responsible when he is behind the wheel. But if he doesn’t do what he’s told, in many cases he will lose his job.”

Izer started the group in 1994, seven months after her son and three other teenagers were killed when a truck driver fell asleep at the wheel and crashed into them. The teens had pulled over onto the shoulder of the Maine Turnpike. Another teen was seriously injured.

Izer also called for onboard electronic recorders to replace the logbooks many drivers are required to fill out themselves.

The only way for an officer to verify a trucker’s hours-of-service is to check their logbook or timecards, Goodman said.

“There are violations out there. But there are also a lot of companies that are in compliance,” he said.

Drivers and carriers violating hours-of-service rules face mounting fines, starting with a $1,100 fine against a driver and a $2,750 fine against a company on a first offense. An “out-of-service” order, prohibiting the operation of vehicles, can be placed on a company or driver with continued violations.

Driver fatigue could become an issue in civil litigation pending in the Union County crash. The mother of two of the children killed has filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the truck’s driver and the trucking company. The lawsuit notes the driver’s lack of sleep, saying the driver was violating federal hours-of-service regulations. Gainesville attorney Lance Avera is representing the children’s mother.

The Crete Carrier Corp., the trucking company involved in the crash, has an out-of-service rate of 11.5 percent for its trucks, 2.6 percent for its drivers and 6.7 percent for hazardous materials inspections, according to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. The percentages, which reflect drivers and vehicles placed out of service for reasons ranging from minor problems to deficiencies with a driver’s logbook, are below or near the 2003 national average, the agency reported. The carrier also had been involved in 19 fatal crashes during the past 24 months. The figure does not reflect fault in the crash.

The carrier, based in Nebraska, has 5,458 drivers and more than 5,000 trucks that traveled more than 636 million miles in 2005.

Looking at the data for the carrier, FMCSA Director of Communications Ian Grossman said it shows it is a larger company that’s “operating safer than most.”

The records also show that drivers for Crete had 417 inspections that resulted in violations within the past 30 months. During those inspections, there were 233 violations of regulations governing hours-of-service rules.

Charles Mickel, 49, a trucker out of Atlanta, said earnings will drive whatever regulations and practices companies will support and follow in the trucking industry.

“They want to keep it the way they make money,” he said while taking a break at the Marion County truck stop. “The bottom line is the freight needs to be moved.”

Lise Fisher can be reached at 374-5092 or fisherl@