Truck firms say rules hurt goals for fuel efficiency

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Posted: Saturday, February 22, 2014 12:00 am

Though trucking industry leaders generally supported President Barack Obama’s fuel-efficiency standards issued this week, Omaha-area trucking officials said some areas requiring attention were passed over.

The administration’s standards aim to decrease reliance on foreign oil, moderate prices for consumer goods and reduce carbon emissions.

However, existing regulations in some cases run counter to efficiency goals, the Omaha-area officials said.

For example, hours-of-service rules that took effect last July have limited drivers’ time spent behind the wheel and have put more trucks on the road. In turn, traffic-clogged roadways have taken a bite out of fuel efficiency, said Jim Mullen, executive vice president and general counsel at Sarpy County-based Werner Enterprises Inc.

“Drivers have fewer hours they can be on the road, so you need more trucks and this causes more congestion,” Mullen said.

Curt Morehouse, co-owner of Omaha-based W. N. Morehouse Truck Line Inc., sees things the same way.

“I think hours-of-service rules needed to change more than anything else,” Morehouse said. “We’ve absolutely seen more congestion because it’s caused more drivers to pull off and sleep at the same time.”

Morehouse operates a fleet of about 100 trucks, while Werner has more than 7,000.

Both executives called into question the science and data behind the controversial regulations that restrict drivers’ time spent behind the wheel and require break periods, among other rules.

Hours-of-service advocates say the rules reduce driver fatigue and increase safety for highway travelers, but competing analyses have disputed federal safety claims.

A crumbling highway infrastructure doesn’t help matters, and Mullen noted that proposals to spark congressional action on the federal Highway Trust Fund have gone unheard.

The fund is fueled by per-gallon taxes on gas and diesel, but tax rates haven’t changed since 1993. Last year, leaders from the industry lobbied unsuccessfully for an upward revision.

“How often does the constituency say, ‘Tax me more,’ ” Mullen said. “That’s how dire it is.”

Obama’s plan calls for new fuel-efficiency standards to be imposed on vehicle manufacturers.

Beginning in 2018, trucks must meet federal requirements affecting things like aerodynamics and improvements to engines and powertrains. While technology has proved an effective means to achieving better efficiency in the past, it’s not without its costs.

“As these new trucks come to market, we’ll pay more for them and then freight rates go up,” said Mike Herre, president of Fremont Contract Carriers, which has 330 trucks in its fleet. “Shippers and distributors will react and raise their prices and those get passed on to us as consumers.

“We hope it doesn’t make us noncompetitive with the rest of the world.”

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