Administration moves to ease drive-time rules for truckers

Truck driver Terry Button drives his truck near Opal, Virginia. The Transportation Department is poised to relax the federal regulations that govern how many hours a day truckers can be behind the wheel, a long-sought goal of the trucking industry.

OPAL, Va. (AP) — Truck driver Lucson Francois was forced to hit the brakes just five minutes from his home in Pennsylvania.

He’d reached the maximum number of hours in a day he’s allowed to be on duty. Francois couldn’t leave the truck unattended. So he parked and climbed into the sleeper berth in the back of the cab. Ten hours would have to pass before he could start driving again.

“You don’t want even a one-minute violation,” said Francois, a 39-year-old Haitian immigrant, recalling his dilemma during a break at a truck stop in this small crossroads town southwest of Washington.

The Transportation Department is moving to relax the federal regulations that required Francois to pull over, a long-sought goal of the trucking industry and a move that would highlight its influence with the Trump administration. Interest groups that represent motor carriers and truck drivers have lobbied for revisions they say would make the rigid “hours of service” rules more flexible.

But highway safety advocates are warning the contemplated changes would dangerously weaken the regulations, resulting in truckers putting in even longer days at a time when they say driver fatigue is such a serious problem. They point to new data that show fatal crashes involving trucks weighing as much as 80,000 pounds have increased.

“I think flexibility is a code word for deregulation,” said Cathy Chase, president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety. She said the hours of service requirements, which permit truckers to drive up to 11 hours each day, are already “exceedingly liberal.”

There were 4,657 large trucks involved in fatal crashes in 2017, a 10% increase from the year before, according to a May report issued by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, an agency of the Transportation Department. Sixty of the truckers were identified as “asleep or fatigued,” although the National Transportation Safety Board has said this type of driver impairment is likely underreported on police crash forms.

The NTSB has declared fatigue a “pervasive problem” in all forms of transportation and added reducing fatigue-related accidents to its 2019-2020 “most wanted list” of safety improvements. A study by the Transportation Department more than a decade ago reported 13% of truck drivers involved in crashes that resulted in fatalities or injuries were fatigued at the time of the accidents.

Trucking interests had pressed the administration and Congress for the rule changes and last year secured support from 30 senators, mostly Republicans.

Independent truckers in particular have chafed at what they see as a one-size-fits-all directive written by Washington bureaucrats who don’t understand what they face on the highways.

“How can you judge me and what I do by sitting in a cubicle in an office?” said Terry Button, a hay farmer from upstate New York who owns his truck. Button estimates he’s logged about 4 million miles since he started driving a truck in 1976. He said he’s never caused an accident, but passenger vehicles have hit him twice.

The proposed revisions are being reviewed by the White House’s Office of Management and Budget and have not yet been released, according to a spokesman for the motor carrier safety office.

The regulations limit long-haul truckers to 11 hours of driving within a 14-hour on-duty window. They must have had 10 consecutive hours off duty before the on-duty clock starts anew. And a driver who is going to be driving for more than eight hours must take a 30-minute break before hitting the eight-hour mark.

© 2019 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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