- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 22, 2011

The Obama administration on Thursday backed down from part of its plan to trim truckers’ workdays, but the new regulations still left both the big-rig industry and its critics fuming.

The rules, crafted by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, retain the daily 11-hour limit for tractor-trailer drivers, but also cut their maximum workweek from 82 hours to 70. The measures also institute a 34-hour “restart period” each week, meant to guarantee that drivers get a much-needed two-day break.

But the restart provision prohibits drivers from getting back on the road before 5 a.m., and industry leaders predict unintended consequences such as traffic jams and more accidents.

“This rule will put more truck traffic onto the roadways during morning rush hour, frustrate other motorists and increase the risk of crashes,” said Bill Graves, American Trucking Association president, in a statement.

The Obama administration “is assuring that every day as America is commuting to work, thousands of truck drivers will be joining them, creating additional and unnecessary congestion and putting motorists and professional drivers at risk,” Mr. Graves said.

The decision comes on the heels of stricter regulations aimed at pilots, increasing their mandated time off between flights. The new rules, released earlier this week, require pilots to take at least 10 hours off after each shift, a two-hour increase over previous standards.

Safety groups and others see a double standard when comparing the administration’s treatment of airline pilots and truckers. Mathematically, they point out, the average American is placed in more danger by tired truck drivers than fatigued pilots.

“In the last five years, there have been 110 commercial airline fatalities, but in 2010 alone, 3,675 people were killed in truck crashes - 33 times the number of people killed in commercial airline incidents,” the Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, one of the most vocal supporters of daily drive-time reductions, said in a statement.

Neither regulation goes into effect until 2013. The delay could allow a potential Republican president to reverse the new trucking regulations before they kick in. Most Republicans in Congress, including House Speaker John A. Boehner and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, have fiercely opposed the rules. The duo sent a letter to President Obama earlier this year, urging him to pull the plug on the proposed changes.

They cited the potential economic impact of the daily hours of service change, which would have forced trucking companies to hire additional employees, likely driving up the cost of food, clothing and other goods.

The drive-time reduction would have cost an estimated $1 billion, according to industry estimates.

But Democrats, labor unions and safety groups have brushed off those economic effects, arguing that the value of human life far outweighs the concern about profits or consumer prices. One death from a tractor-trailer crash, they think, is too many.

They also painted the hours of service regulation as a good thing for the economy, since companies would have had to create an estimated 40,000 new positions to make up for the lost time.

Many of those same critics now feel betrayed by the Obama administration.

Administration officials “have broken their promise to make safety their No. 1 priority,” said Henry Jasny, Advocates vice president. “Leaving this provision in the rule is unconscionable.”