Senators vote to relax shift rules for truckers

Wikimedia Commons

A Senate panel on Thursday approved an amendment that would nullify some of the federal rest requirements for truck drivers.

The amendment, which was opposed by the Obama administration and safety advocates, rolls back a requirement that drivers be given time off during specific hours of the night. The "restart requirements" were enacted in 2013 to reduce fatigue among drivers. 

Specifically, the Senate Appropriations Committee voted 21-9 to rescind portions of the rules that require truck drivers to take breaks between 1 and 5 a.m. on consecutive nights before they can work again. The amendment would also undo a rule that limits truck drivers to declaring only one "restart" per week.

The amendment was sponsored by Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), who has been sharply criticized by transportation safety groups for the effort to change the rules.

Collins said her amendment was designed with safety in mind and had been subjected to a misinformation campaign by pressure groups.

"The fact is neither truck drivers nor their customers nor I nor anyone in this room every wants to see an accident caused by driver fatigue nor any other cause," she said. "But what has become clear during the last 11 months is that the new federal rules have had some unintended and unanticipated consequences that are not in the best interest of public safety, truck drivers or businesses and consumers that depend on their services."  
 
Collins said she was targeting the overnight rules specifically because they were resulting in more truck drivers having to be on the road during the daytime hours.
 
"It's much safer to have these trucks on the road during the nighttime hours," she said. "Let's say you get stuck in Montana in a blizzard and you're coming up against your number of hours ... you're stuck there for 30 hours, let's say."
 
Lawmakers were under pressure from the trucking industry and business groups to eliminate the 1 to 5 a.m. requirement and the one-restart-per-week limit because the industries said the rules resulted in drivers having to take two full days off between shifts, in some cases.
 
"The inability to only take the restart [more than] once a week can really throw off the driver, cause him or her to lose wages, throw off the delivery schedule and have this perverse effect of actually making them more tired," Collins said. 
 
Opponents of Collins's amendment on the Appropriations Committee countered that medical research showed that requiring drivers to rest during that window of time would be most effective in reducing fatigued driving.
 
"Let's not pretend that they just dreamed up these hours. There was a lot of research that went into it," Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said in defense of the Department of Transportation.
 
Collins took pains Thursday to say her amendment was "narrowly targeted" and would leave in place broader requirements that truck drivers be given at least 34 hours off-duty before they have to start a new workweek.
 
"There has been, unfortunately, a great deal of misinformation that have been circulated regarding my amendment," Collins said. "What my amendment does ... is that it provides temporary relief of two provisions of the hours-of-service regulation changes that were made last year while the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration conducts a comprehensive study to see if these changes are truly justified."

Under the rules as they are written now, truck drivers can only declare a restart once in a week. They are also are limited to 11 hours in a work day and 70 hours in a week, and they have to be given at least one 30-minute break during the first eight hours of their shift.

The DOT rules currently require truck drivers to wait 168 hours, or one week, before they can start a new work week. Collins' amendment would remove the requirement that a "restart" can be declared only once per week.

The transportation department had urged Congress to leave the trucker scheduling rules alone.

Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration chief Anne Ferro said in a blog post on the DOT website this week that the rules were extensively researched and would make roads safer for trucker and automobile drivers.

"We carefully considered the public safety and health risks of long work hours, and solicited input from everyone who has a stake in this important issue, including victims’ advocates, truck drivers and companies," she wrote.

"The result is a balanced Hours-of-Service rule with analysis showing that the changes save 19 lives and prevent approximately 1,400 crashes and 560 injuries each year," Ferro continued. "It also shows that the updated rule actually impacts less than 15 percent of the truck driving population — those drivers working the most extreme schedules."

Criticism of the truck driver rules in the Senate hearing Thursday was not limited to Republican lawmakers.

Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.), who is facing an uphill battle for reelection this year, said the rules were "actually making highways more dangerous" because they were increasing traffic on the nation's roads during the day.

"I just viscerally have a reaction to the federal government prescribing when the federal government should sleep," Landrieu said. "This is way beyond where we should be."

Durbin countered that the federal government had an obligation to take steps to boost the safety of U.S. roads.

"Between driver fatigue, drugs [and] texting, let's be honest, the roads are not as safe as they need to be, and it's our responsibility to make them safer," Durbin said. 

Collins's amendment is attached to a broader $54 billion funding bill for the Transportation and the Housing and Urban Development departments. The bill, which is commonly referred to on Capitol Hill as the THUD bill, was approved on a 29-1 vote.

The measure heads next to the floor of the Senate for a final vote. 

-This story was updated with new information at 2:47 p.m.