The 70-hour cap on a U.S. trucker’s workweek has a chance of being eased by Congress, undoing the result of a 15-year effort to reduce highway fatalities caused by drowsy long-haul drivers.
The main federal regulation requiring truckers to take an extended break after reaching weekly time limits would be suspended under an amendment adopted today in the Senate Appropriations Committee. The regulation had taken effect in July 2013 and immediately drew criticism from the industry.
The suspension, which would restore the industry’s 82-hour “workweek,” is intended to force the Transportation Department to address some of the regulation’s fallout, said Kevin Kelly, a spokesman for Senator Susan Collins, the Maine Republican sponsoring the amendment. The industry has said that the rule’s requirements for scheduling rest breaks at night forced more trucks onto the road during the daytime when traffic is most congested.
“What has become clear during the past 11 months is that the new federal rules have presented some unintended consequences that may not be in the best interest of public safety, truck drivers and the businesses and customers who depend on their services,” Kelly said.
The regulations took effect after more than 15 years of legal wrangling over sleep science, the role of fatigue in truck crashes, and how the costs of hiring more drivers to deliver freight would ripple through the economy.
“At the heart of this rule is an expectation to minimize the risk when tired drivers are behind the wheel of an 80,000 pound truck,” Anne Ferro, head of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, said in an interview. “The hours are exceedingly long.”
The Senate amendment would be attached to a broad transportation funding bill that would have to be passed by the full Senate and later reconciled with appropriations legislation in the House of Representatives.
Truck crashes caused 3,912 fatalities in 2012, and the fatal-crash rate increased each year from 2009 through 2012, reversing a five-year trend. The hours-of-service regulation was expected to prevent 1,400 truck crashes a year, saving 19 lives and avoiding 560 injuries.
The trucking industry and business groups that rely on trucks to deliver their goods argue that FMCSA’s rest rules, which were made final in December 2011 and took effect July 1, 2013, have affected more companies than the agency projected.
The American Trucking Associations and its allies said regulators hadn’t done the research or analysis necessary to justify the changes, according to a letter they sent to Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Barbara Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat, and Senator Richard Shelby of Alabama, the panel’s senior Republican.
“Today, thanks to Senator Collins’ leadership, we are a step closer to reversing these damaging, unjustified regulations,” ATA President and Chief Executive Officer Bill Graves said in a statement.
The trucking groups have said they’re most concerned with the provision that forces drivers to take 34 hours off, which must include being off the road from 1 a.m. to 5 a.m. on two consecutive days during that period. This 34-hour “restart” requirement, which begins the clock ticking on a new work week, was intended to make sure drivers got enough sleep.
The 34-hour restart only is required if a driver has reached the maximum weekly limits of 70 hours over eight days or 60 hours over seven days.
The association said the Collins amendment would suspend the restart rules for one year.
There’s nothing in the regulation that forces drivers onto the road during rush hours, Ferro said. Drivers can set their own schedules and drive at night if they wish. There’s no requirement to get on the road the minute a 34-hour rest period ends at 5 a.m., she said.
The vast majority of trucking companies don’t hit the 70-hour maximum, Ferro said. For 85 percent of drivers, it’s a non-issue, she said.
The rules were written only after an extensive review of medical research on what human beings need to reduce fatigue, Ferro said. The agency held hearings across the country to gather industry input and reviewed more than 20,000 public comments, she said.
Most of the companies that have been affected have already made the necessary investments to comply, through new agreements with shippers, reworking schedules and adjusting networks, Ferro said. Reversing the rules now would reward companies that have dragged their heels, while punishing those who have played by the rules, she said.
The segment of the industry pushing the hardest for changes is relying on a system that shortchanges drivers, including forcing them to wait at loading docks, racking up hours of unpaid work, Ferro said.
FMCSA won a U.S. Court of Appeals decision in August challenging the rules. The three-judge panel in Washington rejected most of the trucking industry’s arguments, describing them as “highly technical points best left to the agency.”
That ruling capped years of wrangling over drive-time restrictions including two previous challenges before the appellate court. The court also ruled against groups including Public Citizen and the Truck Safety Coalition that said the rules didn’t go far enough.
The final regulation was projected to cost about $470 million a year, with public safety and trucker health benefits of around $630 million.
Perhaps prematurely, the court said its decision would end the “permanent warfare” the regulatory battle had come to resemble.
That was before trucking companies struggling to implement the regulations began complaining to Congress.
None of the industry arguments ring true to Daphne Izer, the founder of Parents Against Tired Truckers, which has pushed for tighter rest rules for 20 years. The Lisbon, Maine, resident founded the group after her 17-year-old son, Jeff, and three of his friends were killed by a fatigued truck driver.
Collins hasn’t spoken to her constituent as she has been crafting the Senate amendment, which Izer describes as a “back-door way of sneaking it in.”
“This is fighting the battle all over again,” Izer said in an interview. “I’m mad, but I’m not doing this just to be angry. It’s hope for the future. It’s sparing others from going through what we’ve been through.”