Hoping to cut that number, the Federal Highway Administration is now targeting sleepy truckers. As soon as next month they will unveil a plan to set new limits on daily driving hours.
"I know you can go to sleep behind the wheel," says trucker Jim McCurry. "Cause I've nodded off and then woke up. Then I get off the road, you know, it happens."
Currently, truckers are limited to 10 hours behind the wheel in one stretch. They then must stop driving for eight hours. After that, they can resume driving for up to 10 more hours. This can add up to 60 hours behind the wheel in any seven-day period, a scenario some view as outdated and dangerous.
The federal government contends that if truckers are ordered off the road for 14 hours in a 24-hour period, it will improve the chances they get at least eight hours of sleep during their down time, trucking sources said.
Gail Shibley, spokeswoman for the Highway Administration, said that when the agency unveils its final rule, "it will be science-based" and grounded "on the reality of circadian rhythms and body science."
The nation's largest truckers group, the American Trucking Associations, questioned the Highway Administration's proposal. It sent a letter to the agency Thursday asking it to explain the science behind it.
"We have a proposal that we will be offering, but we are putting it to the scientific test now," said the ATA's Mike Russell.
He said the ATA's plan, which could be unveiled as early as September, will focus less on the number of hours worked and rather "on the number of hours of rest and the quality of the rest."
The trucking industry says only two percent of truck accident deaths are due to drowsy drivers, but agrees eight hours off isn't enough to be rested. "I'd say if I was picking a number - and there was a magic number for hours off - I'd say it would be ten hours off," notes the ATA's Susan Coughlin.
At truck stops, where coffee has long been the cure for sleepy drivers, they like the planned changes about as much as they like the government telling them what to do: very little. Trucker Darnela Stowers explains, "You cut our work hours and then all you're doing is instead of me making $150 a day, I'll be lucky if I make $50 a day."
The debate between the government and the trucking industry will be nothing if not new - truck drivers haven't seen a single federal work rule change in more than 60 years.