Trucking Industry Says Fatigue Rule Based on Bad Data

The largest U.S. trucking group asked federal appeals judges to throw out limits on driving time that would cost the industry $470 million a year, arguing the Obama administration exaggerated data on fatigue-caused crashes.

American Trucking Associations Inc., during arguments today in the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, accused the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration of using research that favored the agency’s preferred outcome while setting driver-fatigue rules that it claims would add substantial costs without any safety benefits.

“They inflated the benefits of the new rule by using out-of-date crash information,” Erika Jones, a lawyer for the trucking association, said.

The rules, set to take effect July 1, will reduce flexibility and may undermine safety by forcing drivers onto the road during rush hour, according to the trucking association, based in Arlington, Virginia. Jones argued today that limits on early morning driving will cause delays in deliveries of perishable foods to restaurants and grocers.

Safety advocates, who also made arguments to the judges today, said the measures aren’t restrictive enough.

The three judges considering the case asked few questions during the 80-minute argument. One judge signaled he might vote to uphold the regulations.

‘Light Hands’

“We’re not here to measure policy -- good or bad.” U.S. Circuit Judge Thomas Griffith said to Jones. The court should have “very light hands on this to make sure what the agency came up with is not irrational,” he said.

Griffith, a President George W. Bush appointee, said that it was beyond his capacity to decide which scientific expert to believe. The other two on the panel are U.S. Circuit judges Janice Rogers Brown and A. Raymond Randolph.

While the final rule maintained an 11-hour limit on truckers’ driving day, instead of shortening it to 10 hours as proposed, the industry objects to a requirement of a 34-hour rest period each week that would require drivers to be off two consecutive nights.

The original proposal by the agency required two 12 a.m. to 6 a.m. rest periods during the restart. Groups such as Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety had argued that loopholes in previous rules let drivers average 82 hours of work in seven days when they were supposed to be limited to 60 hours.

Previous Lawsuits

Today’s argument is the third time in 10 years that the appeals court has considered challenges to fatigue rules. The government was sued in 2003, 2006 and 2009 for allowing 11-hour driving shifts. The third lawsuit was settled with an agreement that the agency would redo the regulation.

There were 3,675 truck-related fatalities in 2010, up 8.7 percent from 3,380 in 2009, according to data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. As recently as 2006, there were 5,027 fatalities. About 80,000 people were injured in 2010 in crashes involving large trucks.

“These are largely simple scientific disputes,” Jonathan Levy, a lawyer for the Justice Department, said. “I don’t think it’s the court’s duty to weigh in on that kind of dispute.”

Levy pointed to the fact that the rules were being challenged as both too restrictive and too lenient as being proof that the agency’s work was largely scientific. The Transportation Department said the benefits of the rule are about $630 million.

Driver Fatigue

In creating the new rule, the agency said 13 percent of the truck-related crashes were caused by fatigue. The trucking association says that percentage takes into account “whenever truck driver fatigue is present at the time of a crash” and not whether driver fatigue caused the crash. Under current regulations, only about 2 percent of large truck crashes are caused by driver fatigue, the association argued.

The agency said the industry based its figure on a study that only considered accidents where there were fatalities.

The case is American Trucking Associations Inc. v. FMCSA, 12-01092, U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia (Washington).

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