The Trump administration has taken a step closer to relaxing federal regulations governing the amount of time truck drivers can spend behind the wheel, a move that was long sought by the trucking industry but opposed by safety advocates who warn it could lead to more highway crashes.
The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, an agency of the Transportation Department, on Wednesday issued proposed changes to the “hours of service” rules that dictate breaks truckers are required to take, and their time on and off duty.
“It puts a little more power back in the hands of the drivers and motor carriers,” agency head Raymond Martinez said. Martinez said the agency listened to drivers and their call for safer and more flexible rules.
But highway safety groups have warned that putting the revisions into place would dangerously weaken the regulations.
The government “is offering flexibility without regard for the fact that these weakened rules could be exploited by the worst actors in the industry,” said Harry Adler, executive director of the Truck Safety Coalition.
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 agency.
Trade groups that represented truck drivers and motor carriers have pushed for years for less rigid rules about hours of service, arguing that the regulations were out of step with the daily realities confronting most truck drivers. They found a supporter in President Trump, who has made rolling back layers of regulatory oversight a priority.
“Having the flexibility is huge,” Terry Button, a hay farmer and truck owner from upstate New York, said Wednesday. “It’s good that the government finally took the time to listen to the people who do the job.” Button has logged about 4 million miles since he started driving in 1976.
The current regulations limit long-haul truckers to 11 hours of driving time within a 14-hour on-duty window. Drivers must have had 10 consecutive hours off duty before the on-duty clock starts anew. A driver who will be driving more than eight hours must take a 30-minute off-duty break before hitting the eight-hour mark.
Under the proposed revisions, truckers could take a break while they are on duty but not driving. Drivers have complained that long waits for cargo to be loaded or unloaded keep them idle yet they are still required to take an off-duty break, even if they do not need to rest or cannot find suitable parking for a big rig.
The administration also is proposing to allow drivers to “pause” the 14-hour driving window for an off-duty break of up to three hours, provided the trucker still takes the 10 consecutive hours off duty at the end of the work shift.
Short-haul drivers are exempt from logging their time electronically if they meet certain criteria that include starting and returning to the same location within 12 consecutive hours and not exceeding a 100-mile radius. The proposal would extend the on-duty period to 14 hours and extend the distance limit to 150 miles.
Eric Teoh, a senior statistician with the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, had urged against lengthening the short-haul work period. In a letter to Martinez and the agency last year, Teoh said that a recent IIHS study showed that interstate truck drivers operating under the short-haul exemption had a crash risk 383% higher than those not using the exemption.
The powerful American Trucking Assns., whose members include the nation’s largest motor carriers and truck manufacturing companies, said in a statement that the revisions maintain the “core principles” of the regulations.
A group representing independent truck drivers hailed the “common-sense approach” that will make it easier for truckers to avoid heavy traffic, bad weather and other adverse situations.
“Truckers have families and want to get home safely just like everyone else. They are the most knowledgeable, highway safety advocates and the agency’s proposal, overall, recognizes that fact,” said Todd Spencer, president of the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Assn.
The organization Spencer heads and a grassroots group called TruckerNation.org last year petitioned the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration to amend the rules governing hours of service.
The proposal will be published in the Federal Register next and be open for public comment for 45 days. Martinez said he couldn’t say when a final rule would be issued and take effect, but he described what the agency issued Wednesday as a key step in the process.