Do Pilots Need More Sleep Than Truckers? The Fight Over Federal Rest Rules

The people who drive large commercial trucks, fly cargo planes, and ferry millions of airline passengers are all subject to federal rules governing how much they rest. The U.S. government insists all such rules are  guided by the science of sleep. Yet when Uncle Sam moves to enhance transport safety, it becomes clear that the rest rules are very much influenced by whichever industry or worker group is most pinched by government requirements.

Cargo pilots at FedEx and United Parcel Service, for example, are not subject to rest rules that took effect in January for passenger pilots—an exemption that pilots unions call the “cargo carve-out.” The Independent Pilots Association, which represents 2,600 UPS pilots, has sued the Federal Aviation Administration over the matter. The IPA and other pilot groups are pressing Congress to impose the same rest standard for cargo aviators, a proposal opposed by UPS and FedEx.

“This (rule) isn’t pulled out of nowhere, this is based on a lot of science,” says Sean Cassidy, safety coordinator for the largest U.S. pilots union, the Air Line Pilots Association, and a captain with Alaska Airlines. Passenger airlines have avoided that conflict, satisfied by the changes for which they lobbied when the rules were being drafted.

The latest fight over employee rest is taking place in the commercial trucking industry, which has complained to Congress about the burdens of federal rules that limit truckers’ work weeks to 70 hours. The rules imposed last summer also require a 30-minute break during the first eight hours of a driving shift.

According to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, the changes will prevent 1,400 traffic accidents and save 19 lives each year. Fatal truck crashes rose to 3,921 in 2012, increasing for a fourth straight year, according to Department of Transportation data (PDF). Deaths remain below the 4,245 recorded in 2008, when the recession curbed freight traffic. About 75 percent of fatal accidents involved the largest trucks—over 33,000 pounds.

An amendment that passed the Senate Appropriations Committee on Thursday, sponsored by Senator Susan Collins (R-Me.) would restore the industry’s prior 82-hour work week. The measure is attached to a funding bill for the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which is expected to be debated by the full Senate later this month.

“I’m sure Senator Collins had pressure from the trucking industry to do it,” says Daphne Izer, of Lisbon, Me., who started Parents Against Tired Truckers two decades ago, after her son and three of his friends were killed by a driver who fell asleep at the wheel. Izer expects the trucking industry to succeed in rolling back the rest rules.

Freight haulers are most upset about truckers being required to take a 34-hour break, including no driving from 1 a.m. to 5 a.m. on two consecutive days. “This regulation dumps concentrated amounts of commercial traffic onto the highway system at 5:01 a.m. Monday morning, when people are trying to get to their offices and their businesses … and deliver children to schools,” says Phil Byrd, chairman of the American Trucking Associations and president and chief executive of Bulldog Hiway Express in Charleston, S.C.

The 34-hour period “restarts” the drivers’ work weeks, and the ATA contends that many drivers are not available on normal business days, when most companies want their freight moved. The restart kicks in only when a trucker has hit the legal limit of 70 hours’ driving in eight days, or 60 hours in seven days. Trucking companies complain that the DOT rules are not based on sound science and that they contribute to highway congestion.

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