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Trucking riders ‘in the mix’ for short-term spending bill

Trucking riders ‘in the mix’ for short-term spending bill
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Provisions regarding rest and meal breaks for truck drivers may once again be under consideration for a short-term spending bill.

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Cathy Chase, vice president of governmental affairs for the Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, told The Hill that the trucking policy riders are “in the mix” for anomalies that may be added to a continuing resolution (CR).

Such a move would surely be met with fierce resistance from some Democratic lawmakers, as the issue has been a lightning rod in the debate over fiscal 2017 transportation spending legislation. Some Republicans reportedly pushed for the provisions to be included in the CR that was passed in September.

A GOP aide would not comment on what may or may not be included in any spending bills.

“In order to preserve the integrity of ongoing bipartisan negotiations, we do not provide commentary on what is or is not being discussed by the leadership of the Appropriations Committee,” the spokesperson said.

A coalition of public health and safety groups is urging the administration to intervene if a CR includes the policy riders, which they worry would endanger truck drivers and other motorists on the road.

“We are writing to urge you to protect the Obama Administration truck driver hours of service (HOS) rule,” the groups wrote in a letter to the Department of Transportation (DOT) on Friday. “Two critically important safety provisions in the Obama rule are under attack in Congress, and without your leadership and strong opposition, they will be attached to and enacted as part of the government funding bill.”

At issue is a provision contained in last year’s omnibus spending bill that suspended Obama’s proposed changes to the hours-of-service rule for truck drivers until the DOT can prove the regulation would actually improve driver health and safety.

The proposed change — which was briefly enacted in 2013 but later suspended — would have modified the 34-hour “restart” period for truckers, 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 would have 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 would have limited truck drivers to 70 hours a week.

Safety advocates have argued that the change is important to ensure drivers are getting the most restorative sleep during the night and claim that the current rules enable some drivers to work up to 82 hours a week.

“Truck crash deaths and injuries are increasing dramatically. In 2015, 4,067 people died in crashes involving large trucks, the highest number in seven years and a 20 percent increase from 2009,” the coalition wrote in Friday’s letter. “A major cause of truck crashes is driver fatigue.”

But the trucking industry maintains that increasing the required rest time would force more truckers onto the road during morning rush hour, actually increasing the risk of accidents.

Further complicating matters is that the provision in last year's omnibus, suspending the proposed rule, left out essential language clarifying what would happen if the DOT fails to prove that the update is beneficial to drivers. Such an omission would force the agency to revert to old rules put in place more than a decade ago if the DOT can't make its case.

Language was tucked into the Senate’s fiscal 2017 transportation bill earlier this year that Republicans say would provide a “technical fix” to the drafting error made in last year's omnibus, and once again block Obama’s proposed change to the hours-of-service rule.

The policy rider also caps the time truck drivers can spend behind the wheel or on duty at 73 hours per week.

Safety advocates have blasted the fix, claiming that the trucking industry lobbied heavily for the change and arguing that it will encourage longer workweeks.

In the House, appropriators proposed a technical fix without the new cap on hours. But the lower chamber's spending bill also included another trucking provision that would preempt state laws on commercial trucking meal and rest breaks.

Supporters of the preemption language say it’s necessary to ensure uniform regulations across the industry.

But outgoing Sen. Barbara BoxerBarbara Levy BoxerBottom line Trump administration halting imports of cotton, tomatoes from Uighur region of China Biden inaugural committee to refund former senator's donation due to foreign agent status MORE has said it would be a “poison pill” because it diminishes states’ abilities to maintain protections for truck drivers. The California Democrat defeated an attempt to include the provision in last year’s highway bill.