The Danger of Forcing Truck Drivers to Drive Sleep-Deprived Exposed

Trucker Abe Attallah says companies intensely pressure drivers to be on time.

September 18, 2014, 1:20 PM

— -- Out on the road, one trucker says many companies put unrelenting pressure on drivers to make sure loads are delivered on time.

“Driving a semi-tractor like this, any small mistake can take a life,” Abe Attallah, 28, from the Detroit, Michigan area, told ABC News’ “20/20.”

Watch Fearless Trucker Save the Day After Fiery Highway Crash

Truck Driver Lays Down the Law to Police Trooper

Tracy Morgan Crash Puts Spotlight on Tired Trucker Dangers

Tight deadlines can mean more hours behind the wheel with fewer opportunities to rest, and drivers are only paid when the wheels are rolling.

“You know, we are the most familiar and generally the safest people to drive next to on the road,” Attallah said. “But there are the circumstances where companies and drivers will put money ahead of safety.”

Log books are used in order to verify that a trucker is not spending too much time behind the wheel. According to Attallah, some drivers simply resort to falsifying their log books so they can stay out on the road.

“There is a lot of drivers out there who purposely break their logs and, you know, manipulate the log books to get more miles in the day,” he said. “They’ll show themselves sleeping, [but] then they are really out on the road.”

But modifying these log books can have tragic consequences.

This July, a speeding trucker in Illinois crashed into three vehicles, killing five people. The truck driver was charged with falsifying his log book. Prosecutors said he had actually been on the road for 12 straight hours.

In another Illinois crash this year, a toll worker was killed and a state trooper was seriously injured by a trucker who had been up for 36 straight hours. The trucker was also accused of falsifying his log book.

But there may be no clearer example of the pressure that truckers face to stay out longer on the road than what Attallah said happened to him last February. In the dead of night, Attallah was hauling a load of tomatoes to Wisconsin. About four hours into the nearly 400-mile run, Attallah said he started having trouble staying awake and was drifting into what truckers call, “microsleep.”

“Basically, your eyes are open. Your hands are on the wheel, but your brain shuts off for three to four seconds,” he explained.

Attallah said the reason he was so fatigued was that he had too much time off before the run. Federal law mandates that truckers get a rest period of 10 hours between jobs. But after coming off a mandatory break for 10 hours where he slept well, Attallah said his company gave him a short haul job that Attallah said only took one hour. He said his company then told him to immediately take another 10 hours off.

After having slept during his first 10-hour break, Attallah said he couldn't go back to sleep during his second break. “I am not a robot. I don’t have an on and off switch, you know?” he said.

The schedule was disastrous for his body clock, which is why he was so exhausted on his overnight run to Wisconsin, Attallah said.

Worried he might cause an accident, he pulled into a truck stop and called his company dispatcher, which he caught on a video that he later uploaded onto YouTube.

“I've only got a couple hours of sleep. I've been awake too long. I can’t drive no more,” Attallah can be seen telling the dispatcher in the video.

The dispatcher told him to drink some coffee and to go outside and walk around the truck, which Attallah had already done. He was then put on hold and transferred to another dispatcher, who also told him to get coffee and that no other trucker would be able to retrieve Attallah's load.

“I just don’t want to hurt anyone out here,” Attallah told a third dispatcher.

“You don’t need to jump to that. That’s dramatic [expletive] I don’t need this morning. I’m going to tell you. You’re not going to hurt anybody,” the third dispatcher can be heard telling Attallah in the video.

“It was very clear at that point that he didn't care about human life. He just cared about that load and making that money,” Attallah said of the call.

Eventually, the company sent another driver to rescue his load of tomatoes to that he could get some rest, but the third dispatcher made sure Attallah knew there would be serious consequences for him making that phone call.

“You wonder where your paycheck went this week? It came down to where it went tonight. Are we clear on that?” the third dispatcher told him, according to Attallah. Attallah was not docked pay for the incident.

The company Attallah worked for declined to comment to “20/20” about the incident involving Attallah. But the head of the American Trucking Associations, Bill Graves, said that if a trucker says they are too tired to drive safely, companies cannot require them to continue driving.

“The driver was obviously doing the right thing, and the dispatcher was obviously doing the wrong thing,” Graves told “20/20.” “There’s just too much at stake when you have a commercial vehicle with some sort of payload going down the nation’s highways with a fatigued driver.”

A few months ago, Attallah quit his job at the trucking company and is now driving trucks between the oil shale fields of western Pennsylvania. He said he’s proud of exposing one of the industry’s biggest dangers.

“This is the side of trucking that people never see,” Attallah said.

“This is the kind of treatment that drivers have been putting up with for so long, because we know that our jobs are on the line here.”

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events