- The Washington Times - Monday, October 3, 2011

Potholes and high fuel prices could soon be the least of the trucking industry’s problems.

New federal regulations expected to be released this month would cut the number of hours that tractor-trailer drivers can spend behind the wheel each day, forcing companies to hire more employees and put more trucks on American highways to haul the same amount of goods.

The rule, crafted by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA), is designed to alleviate driver fatigue and reduce the number of automobile accidents, but the trucking industry thinks it will do little except drive up prices for every product shipped around the U.S.

“We’re fighting back, and we’re not going to stand still and see our productivity diminish at a time we need to be more productive,” Bill Graves, president and CEO of the American Trucking Associations (ATA), said in a wide-ranging interview with The Washington Times on Monday. Mr. Graves, a Republican, is also a former two-term governor of Kansas.

While praising the administration for some initiatives such as higher fuel-economy standards, the ATA thinks that President Obama’s actions on reducing red tape and creating a more business-friendly environment don’t match his rhetoric.

“He’s saying all the right things in terms of wanting to support business … but when we look in the regulatory trenches, you get a good sense of where the president’s allegiances are,” said Dan E. England, president of C.R. England Inc., a Salt Lake City-based trucking company and the incoming ATA chairman.

“We’re seeing a lot go on in those regulatory trenches that’s imposing greater burdens on all of us,” said Mr. England, who was interviewed alongside Mr. Graves at The Times.

A further crackdown on their industry, Mr. Graves and Mr. England said, is unnecessary, and the current standards are working well for everyone.

Since the first drive-time regulations were put in place in 2004, truckers have been allowed to work 14-hour days. Eleven of those hours can be spent on the highway, with an extra three hours allotted for meals or fueling up.

Each week, they’re also required to take 34 hours off, time most drivers use to head home and visit family or get some much-needed rest.

The proposed changes would shorten the daily driving window to 13 hours. Drivers could then spend only 10 of those hours on the road. The new rules would also lengthen the amount of time truckers must take off each week, increasing it to two periods of midnight to 6 a.m. If a driver finishes his week at 3 p.m. Friday, for example, the new regulations would prohibit him from starting his engine until 6 a.m. Sunday.

Proponents of the changes cite the significant decrease in the automobile accidents and fatalities involving tractor-trailers since the rules were implemented seven years ago. But the trucking industry and other critics think they have an ulterior motive.

“We just think there’s an agenda here, a political agenda that favors organized labor,” Mr. England said. “It would require significantly more trucks to do the same jobs. We would see more congestion on the highways and undoubtedly more accidents. Most people who would be coming in to supplement the ranks would be people relatively new to the industry.”

Those newcomers, Mr. England added, would be more likely to be involved in accidents, defeating the purpose of the rule. While the move would likely create jobs, the regulation would eat away at companies’ bottom lines and force truckers to spend more time at rest stops, watching the clock and waiting until the federal government tells them they can get back on the road.

Several members of Congress, led by House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Rep. John L. Mica, Florida Republican, recently wrote a letter to Mr. Obama vowing to keep a close eye on future moves by the FMCSA, an arm of the federal Department of Transportation.

“The last thing our government should be doing is artificially increasing the costs of almost every consumer good with unneeded regulation,” the letter reads in part.

Mr. Graves said he thinks the current rules represent “the sweet spot” by allowing companies to run an efficient operation and make a profit while also containing safeguards so exhausted truckers can’t drive for days without a break. He urged the FMCSA to reconsider its plan.

But the agency will face push back either way. Several unions, including the Teamsters, have been engaged in a long legal battle with the federal government and have pushed for shorter workdays for drivers. If those groups see the new rules as too loose, they’ll continue the battle in court. If the regulations are too restrictive, the trucking industry will mount its own challenge.

“I don’t see a way forward for [the FMCSA]. They’re damned if they do, damned if they don’t,” Mr. Graves said.

Mr. Graves and Mr. England also voiced support for an industry transition to natural gas, rather than diesel, as the fuel of choice. While federal investment in service stations and other needed infrastructure is unlikely, given the nation’s budget situation, Mr. Graves said the industry is making the move on its own. If trucking companies can save money and run just as efficiently as they do now, he said the switch will become a no-brainer.

“We’re further along on this today than anybody would’ve thought,” Mr. Graves said.

• Ben Wolfgang can be reached at bwolfgang@washingtontimes.com.

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