Congress added a provision to a year-end budget deal that will roll back safety rules aimed at ensuring truck drivers get enough rest. U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx and other safety advocates strongly opposed the plan, which surfaced in negotiations on a funding bill to avoid a government shutdown on Dec. 11. The rider, which was attached to the spending bill by Maine Republican Senator Susan Collins, ended up in the $1.1 trillion plan Congress passed and sent to President Barack Obama on Dec. 13.
The bill that passed included the Collins amendment and suspended rules the Transportation Department implemented last year, which required drivers, after working 70 hours over eight days, to rest for 34 hours before beginning another workweek. The rules had also required that the rest period to include two consecutive nights from 1 a.m. to 5 a.m. The amendment suspends these rules until Oct. 1, 2015, and orders a study on the policy.
The lawyers in our firm who handle cases involving large trucks know that trucker fatigue is a tremendous safety problem all across the U.S. It got lots of attention when the Wal-Mart Store’s tractor-trailer hit a limousine carrying comedian Tracy Morgan. The trucker in that incident, which happened in June, had been awake for at least 24 hours, according to a police report. He was nearing the end of a 14-hour work shift. Secretary Foxx had tried to convince Congress to do the right thing. He sent a letter to senior members of the Senate and House appropriations committees who were considering the year-end spending plan. The letter said:
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.
Secretary Foxx wasn’t successful in his attempts to get Congress to reject language in the Amendment 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. Let’s take a look at what we are now facing because of what Sen. Collins’ amendment has done:
The provision to delay elements of the agency’s rule was in a Senate version of the annual spending bill for transportation programs and was then added to the year-end omnibus bill being worked out by House and Senate appropriators by the Amendment, sponsored by Sen. Collins.
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.
Public Citizen reports that every year, 4,000 people are killed and more than 100,000 are injured in crashes involving trucks. Truck crashes cost the American people and our economy $99 billion annually. Nearly half of all truck drivers admitted to falling asleep behind the wheel at least once in the previous year, according to a 2006 study.
The trucking rules are needed because the industry has been abusing previous regulations to force truckers to drive as much as 82 hours a week. My long-time friend Joan Claybrook, president emeritus of Public Citizen, the Washington-based watchdog group, had this to say:
No one can drive 82 hours in a seven or eight-day period and not be tired. Truckers don’t get enough rest. These provisions ensure they get a little more.
Sen. Collins’ provision suspends 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. It doesn’t take a study to find out that which common sense and available data from highway crashes already tell us and that is a fatigued truck driver is a safety hazard.
Sadly, Congress yielded to the intense pressure from the trucking industry instead of doing the right thing and protecting folks on our highways. Increasing safety on our highways should be a top priority in Congress. It makes absolutely no sense from a safety perspective to do something that would put innocent folks on our highway at risk of death or serious injury. But that’s exactly what members of the House and Senate have done.
Sources: Claims Journal, Bloomberg, and Public Citizen
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