The Transportation Department is poised to relax the federal rules that govern how many hours a day truck drivers can be behind the wheel.
Interest groups that represent motor carriers and truck drivers have lobbied for revisions that they say would make the rigid “hours of service” rules more flexible.
The trucking industry has developed a strong relationship with President Trump, who’s made rolling back layers of regulatory oversight a top priority.
The regulations currently limit long-haul truckers to 11 hours of driving time 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.
Truck Driver Terry Button said, “As far as the 11 hours, you need to be able to stop when you want to stop. Not, when I told you, when some big box carrier is calling up or e-mail or texting his driver ‘why you stopping?’ The guy has to say ‘I’m going to the bathroom’ or ‘I want to get something to eat.’ They’re saying to him ‘keep that truck moving, use every minute you can.'”
The regulations have existed since the 1930s and are enforced by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. Revisions proposed by the motor carrier safety agency are being reviewed by the White House’s Office of Management and Budget and have not yet been released.
Some truckers said the softening of rules that would allow for more flexibility would ultimately make the roads safer.
But highway safety advocates are warning the contemplated changes represent a dangerous weakening of the regulations that will result in truckers putting in even longer days at a time when they said driver fatigue is such a serious problem.
They point to new government data that shows fatal crashes involving trucks weighing as much as 80,000 pounds have increased.
Cathy Chase, president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety explained that the concern is that lifting regulations might take away a 30-minute rest break and said, “It might force a truck driver to drive even longer in adverse weather conditions. It’s an ebbing away at the current regulations when, in fact, 5,000 people are being killed every year in truck crashes and 150,000 more are being injured in truck crashes.”
There were 4,657 large trucks involved in fatal crashes in 2017, a 10 percent 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 in these accidents 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 groundbreaking study by the Transportation Department more than a decade ago reported 13 percent of truck drivers involved in crashes that resulted in fatalities or injuries were considered to have been fatigued at the time of the accidents.
At least a dozen transportation safety rules under development or already adopted were repealed, withdrawn, delayed or put on the back burner during Trump’s first year in office as part of a sweeping retreat from federal regulations the president said slowed the economy or created an unnecessary burden for businesses.