Federal regulators are due to issue a final rule on changes in truck driver hours at the end of this month, but opponents say the Obama administration should let the clock run out.
Critics include shippers who pressed Congress late last month to block the effort to reduce the 11-hour driving limit by an hour. But more importantly, they include key Republicans in Congress who vowed in a bluntly worded letter to “aggressively oversee any attempts to impose new regulatory burdens.”
Whatever the rule, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration should expect legal challenges from either the trucking industry or safety advocates. The issue could also find its way to Congress, where with nearly 150 legislators on record opposing the rule change, it could be blocked, as a similar proposal was in 2000.
Congress removed funding for the FMCSA’s rule-making effort then, and Republicans could take a similar action as it works on a six-year, more than $230 million transportation plan.
The proposed regulation, which the White House said could cost some $1 billion, is a prime target for Republicans looking to kill rules they say put an unnecessary burden on business and hinders job growth.
The administration in its notice on the proposed rule did not spell out many details on the hours, including whether it would stick with 11 hours or take the limit down to 10. The rule may also alter an existing provision allowing drivers to reset their weekly clocks after 34 hours off-duty.
To the trucking industry and its shipping customers, the $1 billion cost estimate is just part of the impact. Many also believe it could hit the business just as companies are facing greater challenges getting drivers to fill jobs. Cutting hours will require companies to hire thousands of drivers to handle existing freight. Driver turnover at large carriers hit 79 percent this year, the highest rate since the second quarter of 2008, according to the American Trucking Associations.
Shippers say capacity is tight enough without the increased regulation, and further boosts in rates would ripple though the supply chain to the end customer.
“The recession, high fuel prices, roadway congestion and a shortage of qualified drivers all have led to reduced capacity and increased transit times for our most critical transportation mode — trucking. Neither our economy nor our country can afford more of the same,” said Brian Everett, executive director of NASSTRAC, an association representing freight shippers.
The industry says the rule is not over questions of safety because the limited data on accidents since the current limits took effect in 2003 suggests the rate of truck-related crashes has declined in recent years. That’s the argument members of Congress are hammering at.
The rule change isn’t needed because under the current guidelines severe and fatal highway crashes have declined “even as truck mileage has increased by almost 10 billion miles,” wrote House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman John L. Mica, R-Fla., in a letter to Obama. Fellow committee members Reps. John J. Duncan, R-Tenn.; Bill Shuster, R-Pa.; and Sam Graves, R-Mo., signed the letter.
Although U.S. traffic fatalities per million vehicles traveled in 2010 hit their lowest level since 1949, the pace of decline — 3 percent — was the smallest in three years, according to the Department of Transportation. FMCSA Administrator Anne Ferro says the agency’s mandate is to reduce those fatalities even further.
“We owe it to the public to establish strong safety performance measures,” Ferro said in February. “We’ve working toward a continued dramatic reduction in fatal crashes.”
The National Transportation Safety Board says revising the HOS rule would help ensure drivers get at least eight hours of continuous sleep, which the agency says is what is needed to avoid fatigue. The agency estimates fatigue plays a major factor in up to 40 percent of truck crashes.
Still, there are changes in regulations shippers and trucking companies would like to see.
Shippers who went to Capitol Hill last month to argue against the change in the HOS rule also asked lawmakers to raise truck weight and size limits on interstate highways. Proponents say allowing heavier-loaded trucks is needed because truck traffic is increasing 11 times faster than U.S. road capacity, according to the Coalition for Transportation Productivity, a group of more than 180 shippers and trucking companies.
Consumer and highway safety groups oppose raising the gross vehicle weight from 80,000 pounds to 97,000 pounds because it would make truck accidents more severe.
In other words, actions on size-and-weight and on hours of service would add up to heavier loads carried for longer hours than what the FMCSA is likely to propose. That would mark a big regulatory turnaround, if shippers get their way.