A courtroom showdown over truck driver hours-of-service rules is fast approaching, with a deadline for implementing new rules on how many hours truckers can spend behind the wheel not far behind.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit will hear oral arguments against the latest rules March 15, combining two challenges to the federal regulation in one hearing.
The looming showdown is years in the making and will pit trucking industry groups, shippers and their business allies against consumer and highway and auto safety advocates led by Public Citizen.
Trucking groups say changes to the rules aren't necessary and point to safety improvements and a reduction in truck-related highway fatalities since the last major rule change in 2004.
Public Citizen and its allies say the new rule does not do enough to reduce truck driver fatigue and prevent deaths and injuries, and they want stricter driving limits put in place.
Shippers should mark the date on their calendars. If the appeals court upholds the current rule — the latest in a series of final hours-of-service rules dating back a decade — they will bear some of the cost.
Cutting into hours of service, whether by reducing the actual daily limit, which the current rule does not do, or changing other aspects of the rules, which it does, will reduce available truck capacity.
The high cost of truck equipment and rising driver wages and labor costs are among the factors keeping a lid on truck capacity, which shrank by as much as 15 to 20 percent during the recession.
Cutting into hours of service available to truck drivers would exacerbate the problem and raise shipping costs, said Bruce Carlton, president and CEO of the National Industrial Transportation League.
“Hours-of-service changes, driver shortages, trucking bankruptcies, all of these things are different chapters in the same book on capacity in the trucking industry,” Carlton said in an interview.
The NITL supports the American Trucking Associations' challenge to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration's final hours-of-service regulation, which if upheld by the court will take effect July 1.
The shipper group NASSTRAC also supports ATA's challenge and has tried to rally shipper support for the trucking industry's challenge, taking its protest to Capitol Hill.
The hours truckers may drive won’t change if the rules are upheld, but truckers may be required to spend more time off duty between work weeks and to take rest breaks after eight hours of driving.
For truckers and shippers, the debate focuses on changes to the rule's 34-hour restart provision. Since 2004, the restart has allowed drivers to reset their weekly clock after spending 34 hours off-duty.
That helps many long-haul drivers get back on the road and home more quickly when they run out of hours in remote locations. The restart also helps drivers who make Monday morning deliveries.
The new rule requires will drivers to spend two consecutive 1 a.m. to 5 a.m. periods off duty before a restart, making it harder, though not impossible, for a trucker to actually restart within 34 hours.
The rule also allows drivers to use the restart only once in a seven-day period, which has the effect, on paper at least, of dropping the maximum amount of working time from 82 to 70 hours a week.
The trucking industry opposes the changes and wants the previous 34-hour restart restored. Public Citizen and its allies want the 34-hour restart eliminated and daily driving limited to 10 hours.
Congress, in last year's surface transportation spending law, required the Department of Transportation to study the potential impact of the restart changes and issue a report by March 31.
If the changes are upheld, motor carriers may find they need to add drivers and equipment and reposition them in order to handle the same amount of freight, as they redesign their networks.
“The question becomes how much (time) can you make up within your operation,” said John White, executive vice president of U.S. Xpress Enterprises and president of its truckload division.
“There are so many variables,” he said. “In a large company like ours” with a mix of long-haul, team and regional drivers, “you're still looking at a potential 3 to 6 percent impact on productivity.”
The impact on some types of operations — regional dedicated or long-haul — will be different, White said. The effect of the rule “will be very dynamic and very customer specific,” he said.
A major question is “will we have time to implement the new regs,” White said. If the appeals court decision is not issued until May or June, meeting the July 1 deadline will be very difficult.
“It’s going to come down to the wire,” White said of the decision. U.S. Xpress can't wait until the last minute. “We’re going to have to be proactive rather than reactive and train as we go,” he said.
In a Jan. 25 letter, ATA President and CEO Bill Graves asked the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration for an additional three months to comply the final rule following a court decision.