Truckers seek brake on new rules

GOP on Hill asks Obama to stop hours curb

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Top House Republicans have thrown their support behind the trucking industry and are urging the Obama administration to hit the brakes on proposed regulations that would further limit how long each day that tractor-trailer drivers can stay behind the wheel.

House Speaker John A. Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor on Wednesday sent a letter to President Obama and implored him to pull the plug on the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s (FMCSA) new trucking guidelines, which are expected to be finalized later this month. Among other things, the rules would cut the number of hours a driver can be on the road from 11 to 10 a day.

Opponents have argued the changes will lead to more trucks on the road and higher costs for companies, which will be forced to hire more drivers to haul the same amount of products.

“These costs will affect not only the trucking industry, but every business shipping and receiving goods,” Mr. Boehner and Mr. Cantor wrote. “Small businesses have already seen shipping costs rise as truckers have passed along the costs of higher gas prices additional shipping costs which will result from the rule change will further strain small businesses in an environment where weakened consumer demand has already put downward pressure on prices.”

The two Republican leaders cited an estimated $1 billion in increased costs that the big-rig business will face if the “regulatory burden” is put in place.

Other House Republicans, led by Rep. John L. Mica of Florida, House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee chairman, have also taken aim at the FMCSA and argued that, at a time of economic turmoil, higher costs for companies and consumers would be devastating.

In addition to the daily drive-time change, the rules would also modify the 34-hour period drivers must take off each week. Under the new standards, the 34-hour window would have to include two periods from midnight to 6 a.m., meaning a trucker who finished his week at 1 p.m. on a Friday couldn’t return to the road until 6 a.m. Sunday.

Proponents of the regulations say they will reduce driver fatigue and cut the number of tractor-trailer accidents on American highways. Several labor unions, led by the Teamsters, are aggressively backing the changes and have been engaged in a lengthy legal fight with the federal government to push for shorter workdays. The Association of Plaintiff Interstate Trucking Lawyers of America, a group of attorneys that advocates for safer trucking practices, has also joined the debate.

“Since fatigue is a national epidemic, it does not take a rocket scientist to figure out that 10 hours per day is safer than 11 hours a day,” said Edward C. Bassett Jr., an attorney with the APITLA, in a Wednesday letter to Mr. Obama.

In his letter, Mr. Bassett also pointed out that, until 2003, 10 hours of daily driving time was the standard. When the Bush administration raised that threshold, critics warned that more sleepy truckers and subsequent accidents would result.

But along with that change came other adjustments, such as an increase in the daily rest period from eight to 10 hours. The combination of 11 hours on the road with 10 hours of mandated rest produced a “crucial equilibrium[“] that maximized productivity while ensuring drivers are awake and alert for their shifts, said Rob Abbott, the American Trucking Association’s (ATA) vice president of safety policy.

“The opponents predicted dire consequences that didn’t come true,[“] he said Thursday.

There is conflicting data on just how many crashes are related to fatigue. FMCSA estimates previously attributed about 7 percent of accidents to fatigue, though the agency later said that figure is likely low. In his letter, Mr. Bassett cited another FMCSA study that lists the number at 13 percent. Other studies, he said, put the figure at about 35 percent.

Whatever the true number, the American Trucking Associationbelieves there’s another important statistic that isn’t getting enough attention: Since 2003, tractor-trailer accidents have decreased by 30 percent. While the stated goal is safety, the proposed rules could reverse that trend and lead to more accidents after companies hire rookie drivers to make up for their veterans’ lost drive time.

“If you reduce our capacity and productivity you’re basically spurring a need to hire additional inexperienced drivers,” said Rob Abbott, ATA’s vice president of safety policy.

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