Safety advocates slam plan to allow longer work hours for truckers

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The Senate is preparing to quietly slip language into a transportation spending bill that would set longer work-weeks for truck drivers, safety advocates said on Wednesday.

The provision – which was supposed to be a legislative fix to a technical error made in the fiscal 2016 omnibus – is meant to clarify language that suspends parts of the administration’s trucking hours of service rule until a study is completed.

{mosads}But safety advocates familiar with the situation maintain that the provision would go one step further by allowing truckers to spend 73 hours driving or on duty per week – a provision they say was heavily lobbied for by the trucking industry.

The Senate Appropriations Committee won’t release the text of the Transportation, Housing and Urban Development (THUD) fiscal 2017 spending bill until the full panel markup on Thursday, though a subcommittee approved draft legislation on Tuesday.

“The Senate Transportation funding bill is being considered in a fair, bipartisan and open process,” said a spokeswoman for Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), who chairs the Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation, Housing and Urban Development. “It is unfortunate that there has been so much misinformation regarding the important safety provisions in this bill that would strengthen the safety of our roads.”

The spokeswoman said the new restriction would protect both the driving public and the truck drivers behind the wheel, pointing out that safety advocates claim some truck drivers can work up to 82 hours per week. The 73-hour cap would ensure that doesn’t happen.

She also emphasized that the bill does not make any changes to the 11-hour daily driving limit, the 14-hour daily on-duty limit, the 10-hour daily off-duty requirement or the 30-minute rest break requirement. 

Still, advocacy groups are urging lawmakers to drop the proposed cap from the measure.

“We understand that once again language, not seen by the public, will be included in the underlying THUD bill you will take up tomorrow morning,” a dozen groups, including Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety and the American Public Health Association, wrote in a letter to the committee. “This is the third year in a row that special interests are using the transportation appropriations bill to advance their agenda of longer working and driving hours for truck drivers with shorter hours for rest and recovery.”

The issue stems all the way back to 2013, when the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration enacted a new rule to modify the 34-hour “restart” period, which is an amount of off-duty time that drivers can take in order to reset their driving limit after they reach the maximum 60 hours in seven days or 70 hours in eight days.

The new regulation mandated that every restart period include two nights in that break, with no driving between 1 a.m. and 5 a.m, and said that truckers could only use one restart per week. The rule effectively limited truck drivers to 70 hours a week.

Safety advocates have argued that it’s important because people get the most restorative sleep at night, but the trucking industry has said the rule puts more truckers on the road during morning rush hour, thus increasing the risk of accidents.

“Truck drivers using the restart were coming off and being pushed into morning traffic,” said Dave Osiecki, executive vice president of national advocacy at the American Trucking Associations. Agency officials have “acknowledged that they haven’t looked at that as a possible risk factor.” 

Collins successfully added a provision to the fiscal 2015 spending bill that suspended the new restart rule until the Department of Transportation (DOT) completes a study on the topic.

An additional provision was added one year later to the fiscal 2016 omnibus that said the rule couldn’t go into effect unless the DOT study proves that the regulation is beneficial to drivers’ health and safety.

However, legislators left out key language to clarify what would happen if the agency doesn’t find that the rule improves health and safety. Experts and industry groups agree that as currently written, the agency would have to revert back to old rules that were in place over a decade ago, which is why lawmakers have been scrambling for a quick fix. 

But the issue could very well become a lightning rod in the debate over an otherwise non-controversial spending bill.

“It would be very problematic,” said Cathy Chase, vice president of governmental affairs for Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety. “We are working with our allies (in Congress) on strategies that are still developing.”

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