Trucking industry wants to jam brakes on looming driver regulations

Trucking companies are about to get hit with a new set of regulations further limiting the time a driver can spend behind the wheel.

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) rule, the subject of a years-long legal battle, will only exacerbate an existing national driver shortage and hit consumers in their pocketbooks, the industry charges.

Safety groups, meanwhile, argue the regulations don’t go far enough to protect the nation’s roads from the consequences of driver fatigue.

Beginning July 1, drivers will be able to drive 12 fewer hours per week and will be required to take regular 34-hour rest periods that include pre-dawn hours of two straight days, under the rule.

The latter provision in particular has roiled the trucking industry, since drivers are more productive when the roads are empty. Companies say the regulations impede the industry’s flexibility, which has long given it a key advantage over other shipping modes.

David Heller, director of safety and policy for the Truckload Carriers Association, said the trucking firms support safety regulations, but he said the new rules would lead to a an estimated four-to-six-percent drop in productivity.

“We’re not clamoring to be able to drive until the wheels fall off,” Heller said.

The new limits would make worse an existing shortage of truckers linked to rising fuel costs, the retirement of a generation of truckers, and an exodus of drivers to construction jobs and other more lucrative work, he said.

Heller placed the shortage at 200,000 (though other estimates are far lower) and said the problem is compounded by the economy’s recovery, which is increasing demand for goods.

“Now there’s products to ship, but carriers are parking their trucks because there’s no one to drive them,” he said.

Critics say the costs would be passed along to consumers.

FMCSA spokesman Duane DeBruyne declined to respond to those concerns, saying that, “the rule’s focus is on safety.”

DeBruyne emphasized that the regulations were published back in December of 2011 and technically took effect in February last year. Carriers were given until July to comply with the rule, which 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 company subject to fines, DeBruyne said.

The rule reduced the maximum number of hours a truck driver can work from 82 hours a week to 70 hours, and mandates the 34-hour “restart” requirements. But the daily driving limit remains at 11 hours, despite a challenge from safety groups to lower it to ten hours.

John Lannen, executive director of the Truck Safety Coalition, said the rules still allow drivers to be on the road for dangerous lengths of time, noting that 70 hours is “obviously far greater than the ordinary work week.”

Adding that truck crash fatalities had risen in recent years, Lannen said the trucking industry’s problems are of its own making. He said drivers are paid by the mile, rather than by the hour, creating an incentive for them to work long hours.

He said the turnover rate from year to year is roughly 98 percent, and noted that the life expectancy for a trucker in 61 years, well below the national average.

“Truck drivers are overworked and underpaid,” he said. “No wonder they’re having trouble attracting and retaining them.”

The fight over truck driver service stretches back decades, and the regulations have been modified several times since they were first set out in 1935. The new rules aren’t likely to end the struggle, as both the safety coalition and the carriers association have filed lawsuits with a federal appeals court in Washington, D.C., to challenge them.

The court, known as the D.C. Circuit, heard arguments on both cases earlier this spring and is considering the suits together, Lannen said.

The court is under no obligation to rule on the matter before enforcement of the regulations begins in two weeks.

Meanwhile, the House Transportation Subcommittee on Highways and Transit is set to convene a hearing on Tuesday to consider the potential impacts of the rule. Representatives from FMCSA, the American Trucking Association and the Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance are among those scheduled to testify.