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Obama Splits Difference on Transport Rest, Satisfying No One

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U.S. Reins in $1 Billion Truck Rules After Industry Backlash
Truck drivers have an average life expectancy of 61 years, 16 less than the U.S. average, and have the highest rate of on-the-job fatalities among occupational groups, according to government statistics. Photo: Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

Dec. 23 (Bloomberg) -- President Barack Obama’s administration this week issued fatigue-prevention rules for airline pilots and truckers that reflected compromise and negotiation. They prompted all sides to talk about lawsuits.

The U.S. Transportation Department decided to not change an 11-hour driving limit for truckers yesterday, prompting safety advocates to say they may sue. An industry group said it may sue over the requirements the agency did impose. A Dec. 21 fatigue rule for commercial-airline pilots that exempted cargo flights prompted a lawsuit from the pilot’s union at United Parcel Service Inc.

U.S. agencies are weighing complex regulations in a measured way, said Michael Livermore, executive director of the Institute for Policy Integrity at New York University. Industry groups are describing a “radical, socialist attempt to take over the entire U.S. economy,” while safety activists see it as being soft on business and not protecting people, he said.

“The administration is trying to chart an in-between kind of course, and it doesn’t seem to be able to please anyone,” Livermore said. “The whole polarized political culture has bled over into the regulatory process.”

Republican candidates for the 2012 U.S. presidential election have made the issue of “job-killing” government regulation of business a talking point in debates and speeches.

Rule Costs, Lobbying

The Obama administration had estimated the cost of both proposed regulations at about $1 billion. The final trucking regulation has annual costs of about $470 million, the Transportation Department said. With cargo carriers exempted, the Federal Aviation Administration says its rule will cost passenger airlines $297 million over 10 years.

The White House’s Office of Management and Budget met with industry groups over the trucking rule at least four times in October and November, according to the agency’s website.

The American Trucking Associations and the International Foodservice Distributors Association came in October. The Food Marketing Institute, the American Bakers Association, the Snack Food Association and McKee Foods Corp. met with OMB in November. The White House met with safety groups and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters once in October. A Nov. 28 meeting on the hours-of-service rules doesn’t list participants.

Industry Objections

Trucking companies had opposed the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s proposal to reduce the driving day to 10 hours, saying the shorter hours would force them to rework routes and hire more drivers.

American Trucking Associations, an Arlington, Virginia-based industry group, said yesterday it would consider a court challenge to the section of the rule that mandates drivers get at least two weekly rest periods spanning 1 a.m. to 5 a.m. The FMCSA had proposed rest periods of 12 a.m. to 6 a.m.

“My sense is we will not be willing to walk away from the other modifications they made to the rule,” Bill Graves, chief executive officer of the trucking group, said in a telephone interview. “The administration might have been better off to pick one side or the other and go all in.”

The changes represent a one-size-fits all approach to a diverse industry that includes small-business owner-operators who can’t control how much time drivers spend waiting at loading docks, Todd Spencer, executive vice president at the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association in Grain Valley, Missouri, said in a statement yesterday.

Small Business

“This rule will have a dramatic effect on the lives and livelihoods of small-business truckers,” Spencer said. “The changes are unnecessary and unwelcome and will result in no significant safety gains.”

Data that would justify the 11-hour driving day hasn’t come out in the past year, since the proposal first came out, said Henry Jasny, vice president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, a Washington watchdog group.

“They’re going to have to explain why they were leaning toward 10 and now they aren’t,” Jasny, also the group’s general counsel, said. “We will continue to pursue changing the hours rule back to the original 10 hours. If that means returning to court, so be it.”

The trucking rules are to take effect in July 2013.

The FAA rules, which take effect in two years, require that passenger-airline pilots work shorter shifts and get longer rest periods. It was the first revision of rest rules since 1985.

Price of Safety

While the agency had proposed applying the new measures to cargo-carrier pilots, the final rule exempted them because the costs were too steep, U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said Dec. 21.

“The executive branch has decided that the price of aviation safety, in the form of new pilot rest rules, is too high,” Robert Travis, president of the Independent Pilots Association, said Dec. 21.

The administration appears to be applying their cost-benefit analyses rigorously and that will lead to some politically unpopular conclusions, NYU’s Livermore said. On the trucking rule, the White House seems to have discounted hard-to-quantify safety benefits too much -- and even that won’t end the debate, he said.

“If they’re trying to have this be the final word, they’re not going to be successful,” Livermore said. “The trucking hours-of-service rule has been litigated since the memory of man runneth not.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Jeff Plungis in Washington at jplungis@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Bernard Kohn at bkohn2@bloomberg.net

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