Congress is considering adding to a year-end budget deal a provision to roll back safety rules aimed at ensuring truck drivers get enough rest, a measure U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said should be rejected.
Foxx said he strongly opposes the plan, which was approved by the Senate Appropriations Committee on June 5 but never got a floor vote. The House never considered the plan, which has surfaced in negotiations on a funding bill to avoid a government shutdown on Dec. 11.
Trucker fatigue gained attention when a Wal-Mart Stores Inc. tractor-trailer on June 7 hit a limousine carrying comedian Tracy Morgan after the trucker had been awake for at least 24 hours, according to a police report. He was nearing the end of a 14-hour work shift.
“The evidence clearly shows that truck drivers are better rested and more alert after two nights of sleep than one night, and that unending 80-hour work weeks lead to driver fatigue and compromise highway safety,” Foxx said in a letter to senior members of the Senate and House appropriations committees considering the year-end spending plan.
Foxx urged rejection of any language that suspends regulations that require two overnight rest periods between trucker work weeks. The regulations also curtail practices that allowed up to 82 hours of work a week.
The provision to delay elements of the agency’s rule was in a Senate version of the annual spending bill for transportation programs and may be added to the year-end omnibus bill being worked out by House and Senate appropriators.
The provision is sponsored by Senator Susan Collins, a Maine Republican.
Senator John Thune of South Dakota, top Republican on the Senate Commerce Committee, told Bloomberg BNA yesterday that the fate of the provision was a key issue being discussed by House and Senate negotiators.
“That’s one of the issues that we’re watching,” Thune told reporters. “It’s one that hasn’t been resolved.”
Truck crashes caused 3,912 deaths in 2012, and the fatal- crash rate increased each year from 2009 through 2012, reversing a five-year trend. The hours-of-service regulation was expected to prevent 1,400 truck crashes a year, saving 19 lives and avoiding 560 injuries.
The trucking rules are needed because the industry had abused previous regulations to force truckers to drive as much as 82 hours a week, said Joan Claybrook, president emeritus of Public Citizen, a Washington-based watchdog group.
“No one can drive 82 hours in a seven or eight-day period and not be tired,” Claybrook said in an interview. “Truckers don’t get enough rest. These provisions ensure they get a little more.”
The trucking industry and business groups that rely on trucks to deliver their goods argue that federal rest rules, which were made final in December 2011 and took effect July 1, 2013, have affected more companies than the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration projected.
The American Trucking Associations disputed the characterization of the Collins amendment as a roll back of rest regulations. The aim isn’t to eliminate the 34-hour rest period, according to a letter the Arlington, Virginia-based trade group sent to lawmakers yesterday. The provision would let drivers use it more than once a week, the group said.
Another goal of Collins’ provision is to suspend a mandatory second nighttime rest period while the agency studies whether the regulation has forced more drivers to operate during daytime hours, when there is more traffic congestion and crash risk, the group said.
“Special groups have also deliberately misled Congress by distorting the safety record of the industry and pointing to tragic crashes that had nothing to do with the restart provision,” ATA President and Chief Executive Officer Bill Graves said in the letter.
The June accident on the New Jersey Turnpike critically injured Morgan and killed comedian James McNair. Trucker Kevin Roper pleaded not guilty to charges of vehicular homicide and assault by auto.
Roper, 35, of Jonesboro, Georgia, drove “without having slept for a period in excess of 24 hours” before the six- vehicle accident, according to the police complaint.
Wal-Mart, which has apologized for the accident, said at the time that “it is our belief that Mr. Roper was operating within the federal hours-of-service regulations.”
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