Public safety is one of the few things everyone agrees is a major responsibility of the federal government.
Yet twice in the last few weeks when it had an opportunity to make things safer -- for truckers, pilots, passengers and anyone on the road -- it put on the brakes short of the mark.
To be fair, there was some progress. The Federal Aviation Administration finally woke up to the fact that it is dangerous to have sleepy pilots in the air. It reduced a pilot's flight-time duty to between nine to 14 hours, down from a maximum of 16 hours now and limited actual flying time to eight or nine hours. It required 30 consecutive hours off every week, a 35 percent increase, and that there be a minimum of 10 hours off between shifts (up from eight hours) to allow time to eat and at least eight hours of sleep.
However, it decided to exempt cargo pilots, who do much of their flying overnight when the body craves sleep, from the rules because it would be too costly when compared with the safety benefits.
"A tired pilot is a tired pilot, whether there are 10 paying customers on board or 100, whether the payload is passengers or pallets," Deborah A.P. Hersman, National Transportation Safety Board chairman, told The Associated Press.
One could argue all the new rules are more costly than their benefits. In 2010, there were 828 airplane crash fatalities worldwide. That's up from 731 in 2009. The new rules will prevent about 11/2 accidents a year and an average of six deaths a year, FAA officials predict.
While passenger plane pilots will be limited to eight or nine hours of flying -- and in many cases doing the flying by pushing the "autopilot" button -- the Department of Transportation decided it is OK to keep the 11-hour limit on truck drivers, who don't have an "autopilot" option.
DOT's idea of making the roads safer is to reduce truckers' maximum work week to 70 hours (a cut of 12 hours) and to enforce a mandatory 30-minute rest break after seven consecutive hours of driving. It also called for at least two weekly rest periods spanning 1 a.m. to 5 a.m.
Truckers suffer more on-the-job deaths than any profession in the United States. The average life expectancy of a truck driver is 61, 16 years less than the U.S. average.
There were 3,675 truck-related fatalities in 2010 in the United States, more than four times the fatalities worldwide in airplane crashes.
"Most truck drivers admit they drive while tired, and nearly half said they fell asleep behind the wheel at least once in the previous year under the existing rule," Henry Jasny, vice president and general counsel of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, told McClatchy Newspapers.
Everyone knows that time is money. In these situations, time and money have been made more important than the public's safety. It seems the government is asleep at the wheel.