Congress is poised to roll back safety rules aimed at ensuring truck drivers get enough rest, ignoring the pleas of consumer activists and U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx.
The provision, added to budget legislation to fund the U.S. government through the fiscal year, would temporarily suspend rules that took effect last year while a study is conducted about the number of trucks driven on congested roads. Under the change, truckers would be able to work as many as 82 hours a week.
This is the second attempt this year by lawmakers to delay the rules after an earlier effort at passage in June happened to coincide with the accident that injured comedian Tracy Morgan. His van was hit by a Wal-Mart Stores Inc. tractor-trailer driven by a worker nearing the end of a 14-hour shift.
“We’re appalled at the deal-making and horse-trading behind closed doors and out of the public view,” said Jackie Gillan, president of Washington-based Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, a watchdog group. “Some elected officials think it’s acceptable to bend to the demands of corporate trucking interests, and it’s acceptable to make political bargains that have life and death consequences.”
The bill was introduced last night by appropriations committees in both chambers and still must be passed by the House and Senate.
Under current rules, truck drivers can work as many as 14 hours a day, including 11 hours of driving. If they average 70 hours in a week, they must rest 34 hours, including two consecutive nights from 1 a.m. to 5 a.m. The regulations curtailed practices allowing the 82 hour work week, according to the Transportation Department.
Gillan’s group, as well as Citizens for Reliable and Safe Highways and the Truck Safety Coalition, tried to mount opposition to the plan to delay the rest rules. They cited a poll that concluded 80 percent of the public was against any policy change that could lead to longer driver work shifts.
Foxx said Dec. 5 he strongly opposes the plan, which was approved by the Senate Appropriations Committee on June 5 but never got a floor vote. The House never considered the plan, which has surfaced in negotiations on a funding bill to avoid a government shutdown on Dec. 11. The provision was written by Senator Susan Collins, a Maine Republican.
“The evidence clearly shows that truck drivers are better rested and more alert after two nights of sleep than one night, and that unending 80-hour work weeks lead to driver fatigue and compromise highway safety,” Foxx said in a letter to senior members of the Senate and House appropriations committees considering the year-end spending plan.
Foxx had urged rejection of any language that suspends regulations that require two overnight rest periods between trucker work weeks.
Truck crashes caused 3,912 deaths 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 federal rest rules, which were made final in December 2011 and took effect July 1, 2013, have affected more companies than the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration projected.
The American Trucking Associations disputed the characterization of the Collins amendment as a roll back of rest regulations. The aim isn’t to eliminate the 34-hour rest period, according to a letter the Arlington, Virginia-based trade group sent to lawmakers. The provision would let drivers use it more than once a week, the group said.
Another goal of Collins’ provision is to suspend a mandatory second nighttime rest period while the agency studies whether the regulation has forced more drivers to operate during daytime hours, when there is more traffic congestion and crash risk, the group said.
A survey of 40,000 drivers’ logs before the rules took effect last year showed an average of 52 hours driven per week, with only 2 percent having worked more than 61 hours, said Sean McNally, a spokesman for the association. It’s very difficult to get to the 82 hours safety groups are talking about in their “hysterical claims,” McNally said.
“It would take an imaginary world of near perfect logistics. You time your sleep to the minute, you time your bathroom breaks, you time your meal breaks, your drop-offs and pickups and traffic, and everything works out perfectly,” McNally said. “That world doesn’t exist.”
The June accident involving the Wal-Mart truck on the New Jersey Turnpike critically injured Morgan and killed fellow comedian James McNair. Trucker Kevin Roper pleaded not guilty to charges of vehicular homicide and assault by auto.
Roper, of Jonesboro, Georgia, drove “without having slept for a period in excess of 24 hours” before the six-vehicle accident, according to the police complaint.
Wal-Mart, which has apologized for the accident, said at the time that “it is our belief that Mr. Roper was operating within the federal hours-of-service regulations.”