July 4 danger? Safety rules eased as truckers rush to deliver fireworks

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A trucking accident that nearly killed comedian Tracy Morgan has put a spotlight on truck drivers who are hauling fireworks around the country for Independence Day celebrations.

Trucker safety advocates say the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) “ignored” serious safety violations from dozens of companies when it granted them exemptions from the hours of service rule. The exemptions are given so companies can speed up fireworks deliveries in the days surrounding the Fourth of July. [READ JULY 4 FIREWORKS EXEMPTION COMPLAINTS]

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The hours of service rule, which is intended to prevent fatigued drivers from getting behind the wheel, limits truckers to 14-hour shifts.

But for a number of years, the FMCSA has granted July 4 exemptions that allow drivers to exclude the time they spend sleeping or off-duty during their shifts. This would also include the time they spend waiting for the fireworks to wrap up.

The Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety has long opposed these exemptions, which the FMCSA issues each year for a two-week period surrounding the Fourth of July. So has the Teamsters union, which represents many truck drivers, and suggested these exemptions for truckers hauling fireworks make the roads more dangerous for all drivers around this time of year.

“These exemptions for fireworks distributors is not very smart,” said Fred McLuckie, legislative director at the Teamsters union. “Hopefully, there won't be any serious catastrophes as a result, but I think there's always the potential.”

The accident that injured Morgan is drawing more attention to the issue of tired truckers on the road in general.

“The Tracy Morgan accident helped to put a face on an issue that we know has been a problem in the trucking industry for many years,” said Jackie Gillan, president of the Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety. “You don't wish that something like this happens, but if that had not been Tracy Morgan in that crash it probably would not have received as much attention as it did.”

Many fireworks companies use their own truckers to deliver the fireworks. In 2013, the FMCSA issued two-year exemptions to 55 companies that remain in effect this year. Then, just last week, the FMCSA issued new one-year exemptions to two more tcompanies.

But Gillan says that at least 30 of these companies have a history of serious safety violations, including chronic hours of service violations, speeding tickets, and poor vehicle maintenance records such as operating trucks with bad brakes.

“These companies that are asking for exemptions from safety rules, half or more of them have serious safety violations,” Gillan said.

“If you're going to give safety exemptions to these companies, wouldn't you want to at least ensure that the companies you're giving them to have good safety records?” she asked.

Julie Heckman, executive director of the American Pyrotechnics Association (APA), the industry group that represents many of the companies, says the safety advocates are taking these violations out of context.

“They're misrepresenting the data,” Heckman said. “If they had bad safety records, why would we request waivers for them, why on earth would I do that? They have an impeccable transportation record. And if they didn't, I can assure you that the FMCSA would not even entertain the idea of issuing a waiver.”

Gillan pointed out that her safety group identified what they considered “serious safety violations” from at least 30 of the 57 companies that have received these exemptions.

Many of these companies had out-of-service rates that were more than twice the national average, meaning they were pulled off the road after failing a check up at an inspection station along the highway, Gillan said.

Of greater concern to Gillan is the out-of-service rate for these trucks when they're hauling hazardous materials, such as fireworks. which are considered explosives.

In the case of one company, Gillan's group found that they failed these inspections 25 percent of the time when they were carrying hazardous materials, which is five times higher than the national average.

“We are often criticized for our safety positions,” Gillan said. “But this isn't about denying the public fireworks on the Fourth of July. It's really about making sure those fireworks are delivered safely and don't put the public and other drivers in jeopardy.”

Heckman at APA chalked it up to paperwork violations. She said many of these trucks are pulled off the road when a driver makes a simple mistake filling out a form. “They need to look at the severity of the violation as well as the crash rate,” she said.

But Gillan isn't buying it.

“I find it hard to believe they're all paperwork violations,” she said. “When you have violations for speeding, that's not a paperwork violation. When you have a violation for bad brakes, that certainly is not a paperwork violation.”

Gillan accused the FMCSA of falling asleep on the job. She pointed out the trucking regulator only denied one exemption out of the 58 companies – with what she considers shoddy safety records – that requested such waivers in 2013. And both companies that requested a waiver this year were approved.

“They regulate by luck,” Gillan said. “They give these exemptions and I think that they cross their fingers and hope that nothing will happen.”

But a Department of Transportation official told The Hill that it is much more difficult for a trucking company to receive one of these exemptions than Gillan suggests.

“The implication is that these are easy to get, which isn't the case,” the official said.