Court Rejects DOT Rules for Truckers

The US Court of Appeals yesterday overwhelmingly rejected The Department of Transportation’s new rules allowing companies to demand more road-time from their drivers.

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A federal appeals court on Friday threw out new U.S. government regulations allowing commercial truck drivers to spend more time on the road without taking a break.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia found the first major rewrite of the hours of service rule in more than 60 years was “arbitrary and capricious” because the Transportation Department failed to consider driver health.

SOP for the Bush Administration. For them, sacrificing employees’ health to boost corporate profits is a no-brainer.

“Its failure to do so, standing alone, requires us to vacate the entire rule,” the three-judge panel said in unanimously ordering the Transportation Department to rewrite the regulation.

“It means back to the drawing board,” said Bonnie Robin-Vergeer, the lead attorney for Public Citizen in the legal challenge by consumer and safety groups. “We got what we asked for.”

The court also questioned whether key provisions, like driving time and rest guidelines, would pass legal muster.

The rule took shape slowly and was one of the most sweeping and most anticipated regulatory actions undertaken by the Transportation Department in years. But critics complained the Bush administration weakened key aspects, including minimum rest periods, when it was approved in April 2003.

Likewise the Orwellian rationale for the rule.

But regulators stood by the initiative that took effect in January. “We believe it is an important safety tool, but we’ll have to look further into the court’s decision to see where we go from here,” Transportation Department spokesman Robert Johnson said.

The government has 45 days to weigh any legal challenge of its own. During that time, the new rule remains in effect.

The new rule cut two hours off a trucker’s allowable work day, including unloading and breaks, to 14 hours but permitted drivers to be on the road for 11 consecutive hours, up one hour. It also permitted truckers to work up to 77 hours in seven days, or 88 hours in eight days – a more than 25 percent increase over the old rule.

It was aimed at increasing productivity and reducing fatigue, which can cause accidents. Regulators estimated the rule would save up to 75 lives and prevent up to 1,300 fatigue-related crashes annually.

Regulators–ex-lobbyists from the trucking industry–are nuts. See below.

Deaths in large truck crashes, most involving other vehicles, were virtually unchanged in 2003 at 3,849, according to U.S. safety statistics. Truck drivers and their passengers accounted for roughly 20 percent of those fatalities.

Consumer, labor and safety groups argued that extending allowable driving time, even though a driver’s overall day was shorter, would not improve safety.

“The more you work these drivers with longer hours, (the more) it increases the risk,” said Gerald Donaldson, senior research director at Washington-based Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety. “If a trucker loses control on the highway it’s like a giant bowling ball taking out everything in its path.”

NPR reported last night that the single most decisive factor in fatigue-related accidents involving truckers was the number of consecutive hours they had been on the road: more than eight and accidents increased by some 10%, but nearly 2/3 of such accidents took place when drivers had been on the road more than 10 hours, which is why the original rule used that cut-off. It’s a mite baffling how the DOT can justify an 11-hr shift in the face of those numbers. And, in fact, they didn’t try, relying instead on the old Bush Administration stand-by: bald assertion backed up by zero evidence and spun into its opposite; this wasn’t about ‘safety’.

A trucker at work who just moved back to New England from North Carolina where he was working for JB Hunt, one of the largest trucking firms in the country, told me last night that Hunt–which is proud of its safety record–had ignored the rule change and maintained the old standard because it believed that in the long run the new rules were counter-productive and would lead to more accidents rather than fewer.

NPR also reported in a separate piece that Hunt and several other big trucking firms were booming and were having problems finding enough truckers to fill their contracts. Hunt may have decided that prudence was more important than profits but I think it’s fair to conclude that the pressure for the DOT rule change was most likely coming from trucking industry lobbyists communicating this difficulty to their donees. The Bush Administration, rather than do something creative and positive like proposing a financial aid program for people who want to attend trucker training schools but can’t afford the tuition (around $5K for most schools), promptly used the rule change to allow trucking companies to push their employees harder in the name of ‘efficiency’ instead.

It would seem the Bush Administration deliberately rejected a golden opportunity to help create new jobs in an area of the economy that’s actually growing in order to once again opt for a more oppressive and dangerous option that would be less expensive, though marginally, for trucking corporations. If there was any doubt whose side they’re on, this pretty much erases it.

Note: If what that trucker told me is true, then major kudos go to JB Hunt for refusing to endanger their drivers for the sake of a few dollars extra in profits even though the Bush Administration told them they could. And bear in mind, this is yet another extremely profitable and stable company that isn’t cutting corners on safety because ‘it’s too expensive’. You rock, guys.

(Thanks to Island Dave for the tip.)