- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 30, 2011

A proposed Obama administration rule to reduce the number of hours big-rig drivers can spend behind the wheel each day would hurt truckers while also driving up the cost of food, clothing and other products, industry leaders told a House subcommittee on Wednesday.

The regulation, now under review by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, would reduce a tractor-trailer operator’s maximum hours of service each day from 11 to 10. Proponents, including many House Democrats and organized labor, argue it will cut down on driver fatigue and lead to safer highways while also creating about 40,000 new jobs, since trucking companies would have to hire additional employees to make up for the lost time.

But critics say the measure also comes with an estimated $1 billion price tag - a combination of lost employee productivity and higher prices for virtually every product transported by truck in the U.S.

“Ultimately, the consumer will feel these costs at the check-out aisle,” said Robb MacKie, president and CEO of the American Bakers Association, in testimony before the Subcommittee on Regulatory Affairs.

Mr. MacKie said his business relies heavily on the ability to transport products efficiently, getting cakes, pies, bread and other food to store shelves as quickly as possible. The lost hour, he said, could affect both the quality and price of baked goods.

The grocery business would face similar problems. Glen Keysaw, executive director of transportation and logistics for Associated Food Stores, which distributes food and other products to more than 500 supermarkets in eight states, said his company would take an immediate $2 million hit under the proposed regulations. Associated would have to make about $1.7 million in “capital equipment” purchases such as more trucks, he said, and would also spend about $200,000 in additional salaries and benefits each year.

“This industry operates on a razor-thin margin, around 1 percent for each of the past 60 years,” Mr. Keysaw said. “Any increase in operating costs will have to be passed on to customers in the form of higher prices.”

But supporters of the rule see conversations about profit margins and increased costs as secondary. Before Wednesday’s hearing, House Democrats held a press conference to highlight truck driver fatigue, and invited families who lost loved ones in tractor-trailer crashes. They also displayed pictures of the aftermath of car vs. truck crashes, as well as photographs of the injured recovering in hospital beds.

“We have to make sure that we don’t start to ignore the human dimension,” said Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich, Ohio Democrat. “The only question that matters is whether the proposed rule will ensure that all of our loved ones will be safe on the road.”

Labor unions are also promoting the regulation by casting it as a de facto jobs bill. Teamsters General President James P. Hoffa said Wednesday that, despite the objections raised by Republicans and the trucking industry, it’s possible to craft a rule that “creates jobs, protects American workers and saves money and lives.”

“This is a no-brainer,” he said. “Longer hours behind the wheel may satisfy the greed of the trucking industry, but they’re dangerous for our members and the driving public.”

GOP House Speaker John A. Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor last month wrote a letter to President Obama urging him to pull the plug on the proposed regulation.

Opponents of the rule admit driver fatigue is a serious problem that must be addressed, but believe a simple one-hour reduction in drive time isn’t the answer. Republicans have argued that companies need to take responsibility for their drivers to ensure the’re well-rested and ready for the road, rather than expect federal guidelines to do it for them.

“Nothing in this regulation is going to guarantee that a driver goes to bed and stays in bed for eight hours,” said Rep. Darrell E. Issa, California Republican.