Truckers push Obama to delay mandate for 70-hour driving week

Industry officials and House Republicans on Tuesday urged the Obama administration to pull back regulations that would limit the amount of time that truck drivers can spend behind the wheel.

Beginning on July 1, the new rules would slash the hours per week commercial drivers can spend on the road to 70 per week, while adding new requirements for rest periods.

Steve Williams of the American Trucking Associations said the rules from the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) haven’t been fully vetted, and argued they could cost the industry up to $1.4 billion per year in lost productivity.

“Congress could help, but time is growing short,” Williams said during testimony before the House Transportation subcommittee on Highways and Transit.

Williams called upon Congress to direct the FMCSA to postpone the rules' enforcement until after the agency completes a field study of driver fatigue.

Lawmakers echoed his concern, and said it would be premature to enact regulations that have not been fully researched.

“It seems to me you have incomplete information,” Rep. Scott Perry (R-Pa.) said. “I just feel like we’re throwing this rule out there.”

Critics of the rules noted that trucking related fatalities have declined in recent years, and questioned the need for new limits on driving time.

FMCSA Administrator Anne Ferro said the agency is obligated to update hours of service standards under a 1995 congressional order. She said the new regulations “make reasonable and commonsense changes to reduce the number of accidents linked to tired commercial drivers.”

Current rules allow truckers to drive as many as 82 hours a week.

“These extreme schedules increase the risk of fatigue related crashes,” Ferro said.

The new rules reduce the maximum number of driving hours to 70 per week and mandate “restart” periods — regular 34-hour breaks that include the pre-dawn hours of two consecutive days.

Drivers, who are mostly paid by the mile rather than by the hour, argue the provisions requiring them to rest at certain times of the day will take them off the road when traffic is lightest and they can cover the most ground.

“I’m sitting there for nothing,” said Edward Stocklin, a longtime driver and member of the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association. “If the wheels aren’t turning, you aren’t earning.”

Industry officials estimate the regulations would lead to a 4 percent drop-off in productivity nationwide, costing between $500 million and $1.4 billion, with much of the cost being passed along to consumers in the form of higher process for goods.

Hours of service regulations have been fought over since their inception in 1935, and they have been changed several times.

The most recent dust-up follows a set of regulations announced in November of 2008, in the waning days of the George W. Bush administration. The rules contained provisions that were opposed by safety groups and labor unions, and were twice struck down in federal court.

Safety groups challenged the provisions, which included an 11-hour driving day and more lenient 34-hour restart requirements that did not contain the overnight resting provision. The rules, they said, did not go far enough to protect drivers.

The groups ultimately reached a settlement agreement under which the FMCSA would reconsider their concerns and issue a revised rule. The more restrictive rule, set to take effect in two weeks, was the end result.

The rule will be enforced during millions of random road inspections conducted each year. Drivers found to have exceeded the maximum driving limits would be taken off the road, and their employers would be subject to fines.

But without additional steps to document hours of service, authorities will have a hard time rooting out drivers who keep fictitious driving logs, said Mark Savage, president of the Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance.

“Those who seek to break the rules will have more opportunities to do so,” he said.

The safety groups are again challenging the regulations in federal appeals court, saying they still do not go far enough to protect nation’s roads from the consequences of driver fatigue.

The International Brotherhood of Teamsters also opposes the 34-hour restart provision and would be submitting a statement for the record, spokesman Galen Munroe said.

The industry is also fighting the rules, and has asked the FMCSA to grant a stay on their enforcement until 90 days after the court rules.

The court is under no obligation to rule on the matter before the rules hit, and Ferro said Tuesday she is moving forward as planned.

“I have very high confidence that the rule is strong — it will be held up by the court,” Ferro said.