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Fatigued Trucker Gets 20 Years for Fatal Crash

By Aditi Mukherji, JD on October 17, 2013 1:50 PM

An Illinois trucker convicted of killing a Maryland family in a 2012 crash has received the maximum sentence of 20 years in prison. The truck driver had failed to heed federal regulations aimed at curbing truck driver fatigue.

Josef Slezak, 37, of Rivergrove, Illinois, pleaded guilty to four counts of vehicular homicide and one count of vehicular homicide of an unborn fetus as part of a plea agreement.

Slezak fell asleep behind the wheel shortly before the crash on Interstate 80 in western Nebraska. The tragic case underscores the growing concern over fatigued truck drivers.

New Federal Regulations

Large truck accidents are responsible for about 3,000 fatal car accidents per year, according to the Department of Transportation. Because truck driver fatigue is a leading cause of truck driving accidents, federal regulators enacted new rules dictating how long a truck driver is allowed to be behind the wheel.

Under the new hours-of-service (HOS) regulations set forth by the U.S. Department of Transportation's Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA), commercial truck drivers:

  • May only work an average of 70 hours per week, a 12-hour decrease from the old rules;
  • Must take a 30-minute rest period for every eight hours behind the wheel;
  • May drive no more than 11 hours per day or work no longer than 14 hours a day, once breaks, delays and loading time have been factored in; and
  • May continue to drive after reaching their 70-hour weekly limit, but only if they rest for 34 consecutive hours (which must include at least two blocks of time between 1 a.m. and 5 a.m.).

Not surprisingly, trucking companies have been pushing back against the new regulations. But courts are showing strong deference to the FMCSA.

Violation of Regulations

At the time of the crash, Slezak had driven for more than 15 hours -- a violation of the new FMCSA regulations. He'd also failed to observe radio traffic and other warnings that alerted drivers to slow down due to a crash (in tragic irony, it was a semitrailer truck accident), reports the Omaha World-Herald.

Slezak drove up onto the scene at 75 mph, failed to slow down for the stopped vehicles or notice emergency lights, and struck the vehicle occupied by the Schmidt family, killing Christopher and Diana Schmidt (who was 30 weeks pregnant) and their two young children.

At the end, Slezak received the maximum sentence: 20 years in prison.

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