After a brief off-duty break, the long-running battle over truck driver hours-of-service regulations is back on the clock, with trucking groups, safety advocates and a truckload of allies firing opening salvos in a court challenge to the latest HOS rule.
This time, both sides are attacking the rules. Trucking interests are suing to block provisions of the latest rule they believe will unfairly limit driver hours: restrictions on the use of the 34-hour restart provision that could lengthen a trucker’s time between workweeks and requiring a 30-minute off-duty break after eight hours of consecutive driving.
Consumer advocacy group Public Citizen is suing because it believes the rule isn’t limiting enough; it wants the daily driving limit dropped from 11 to 10 hours or less and the 34-hour restart scrapped altogether.
The longer driving hours allowed by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration since 2003 are inherently unsafe, the group argues. “Congress has repeatedly and clearly required FMCSA and its predecessor agency to adopt rules that reduce driver fatigue, increase highway safety, and protect driver health,” the group said in its legal brief. “Instead, FMCSA adopted rules that allow more daily and weekly driving hours than ever before.”
The American Trucking Associations points to a reduction in fatalities since 2003 as evidence the current rules are working. From 2005 through 2009, fatalities in crashes involving large trucks declined 32.3 percent, then climbed 8.6 percent in 2010 before dropping 5.9 percent in 2011, according to FMCSA accident data. The number of fatalities resulting from accidents involving large trucks in 2011, 3,661 according to preliminary FMCSA data released in March, was 22.8 percent below the 5,036 truck crash deaths reported for 2003.
At the center of the dispute is the oft-litigated FMCSA, which also is being sued by a coalition of trucking companies, shippers and groups over its Compliance, Safety, Accountability initiative.
As it struggles to advance its agenda, the Obama administration’s truck safety watchdog increasingly finds itself at odds with the industry it regulates and even with public advocacy groups more likely to be among its traditional supporters.
Despite the long-term drop in fatalities and injuries resulting from truck accidents, FMCSA Administrator Anne S. Ferro said the agency’s mandate is to reduce those fatalities further. “We’re working toward a continued dramatic reduction in fatal crashes,” she said at an HOS “listening session” in early 2011.
There’s one statistical barrier the FMCSA hasn’t been able to break through: the number of truck-related fatalities as a percentage of total highway fatalities. According to data from the FMCSA and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, that percentage has ranged from 12.2 percent to 10.5 percent most of the past decade and in 2010 was the same as in 2003: 11.8 percent.
The CSA initiative, the HOS rule and plans to require truckers to use electronic onboard recorders are the interlocking pieces of the FMCSA’s overall safety strategy. The CSA and EOBR mandate eventually would help the agency enforce the HOS rule, in whatever form those initiatives and regulations eventually take.
The FMCSA released its latest final HOS rule (following two previous final rules and an interim final rule released by the Bush administration from 2003 through 2008) in the Dec. 27, 2011, Federal Register.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit again will decide whether to overturn the agency’s hours-of-service work — the court vacated earlier versions of the rule in 2004 and 2005 — and send it back to the drawing board.
The court consolidated complaints from the ATA and Public Citizen into one case. No dates for oral argument have been scheduled, but if past cases are an indication, the challenge still could be in court when most of the changes included in the final rule take effect next July.
Practically every group representing trucking or those that buy transportation services is piling in on the side of the ATA, including the Intermodal Association of North America. On Public Citizen’s side are Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety and the Truck Safety Coalition, which includes long-time trucking nemesis Citizens for Reliable and Safe Highways, or CRASH, and Parents Against Tired Truckers.
Shippers also are weighing in on the hours-of-service debate. The National Industrial Transportation League, Health & Personal Care Logistics Conference and NASSTRAC are parties to the ATA complaint. The National Retail Federation and its National Council of Chain Restaurants division joined the trucking coalition, filing a legal brief supporting the ATA and the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association.
“The retail industry is at the crossroads of the supply chain, interconnecting manufacturers and suppliers with vendors and customers,” NRF President and CEO Matthew Shay said. “It is the retail industry’s responsibility to get products to market and into consumers’ hands in a safe and timely manner ... Any new regulation that impedes that ability increases our transportation costs, increases consumer prices and jeopardizes the fragile economic recovery.”
Retailers and other shippers will have to wait many hours to learn the fate of the current rule — and how any court decision might affect their costs and customers.