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Is administration moving to ease driving time rules for truckers?

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Truck driver Terry Button drives his truck near Opal, Virginia, June 13. 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. (Associated Press: TOM SAMPSON)

OPAL, Va. — 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.

Some say 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 government data that shows 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, an alliance of insurance companies and consumer, public health and safety groups. She said the Hours of Service requirements, which permit truckers to drive up to 11 hours each day, are already “exceedingly liberal in our estimation.”

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 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% of truck drivers involved in crashes that resulted in fatalities or injuries were fatigued at the time of the accidents.

The trucking industry has developed a strong relationship with President Donald Trump, who has made rolling back layers of regulatory oversight a top priority. 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.

“First of all, this administration is not as aggressive as the prior,” said Bill Sullivan, the top lobbyist for the powerful American Trucking Associations, whose members include the nation’s largest motor carriers and truck manufacturing companies. “Most importantly, the partnership with them has not been as suspicious of industry as in the past.”

Trucking interests had pressed the administration and Congress for the rule changes and last year secured support from 30 senators, mostly Republicans. The lawmakers wrote in a May 2018 letter to FMCSA Administrator Ray Martinez that the rules “do not provide the appropriate level of flexibility” and asked him to explore improvements.

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 burly 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, although he’s been hit twice by passenger vehicles.

The regulations have existed since the 1930s and are enforced by the FMCSA. 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 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.

Breaking the rules can be costly. A trucker might be declared “out of service” for a day or longer for going beyond the time limits. Many are paid by the mile, so if they’re not driving they’re not making money. Francois, who was hauling 45,000 pounds of drinking water to a Walmart warehouse in Woodland, Pennsylvania, said he gets 50 cents a mile and earns, after taxes, around $900 a week.

Off-duty and on-duty time for most truckers is recorded automatically and precisely by electronic logging devices, or ELDs. Responding to a congressional directive, the Obama administration set in motion the mandated use of ELDs as of December 2017 — a regulatory requirement that Trump has not overturned.

Paper logs could be fudged pretty easily, but not the ELD, which is wired to the truck’s engine and has a display screen visible to the driver. Chase’s organization says an accurate accounting of a trucker’s hours is one of the most effective ways to help prevent drowsy driving. But for many truckers, the logging devices have only highlighted the inflexibility and complexity of the regulations.

“If you run out of time in the middle of the George Washington Bridge, are you just going to pull over and park?” said Button, referring to the world’s busiest span connecting New Jersey and New York.

The Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, which represents small business truckers like Button, said the schedule dictated by the rules is out of step with the daily realties confronting most of their members. Heavy traffic, foul weather and long waits for cargo to be loaded or unloaded keep them idle. All the while, the 14-hour clock keeps on ticking, pushing them to go faster to make up lost time.

Especially vexing is the mandatory break requirement, according to organization president, Todd Spencer. The pause forces drivers to pull over when they don’t really need to rest, he said. And parking for a big rig is often hard to find and they may end up stopping in unsafe places, such as highway shoulders.

Spencer’s organization, which says it has more than 160,000 members, has been pushing for the 30-minute break to be eliminated. In comments filed with the Transportation Department, the group recommended that truckers instead be allowed to effectively stop the 14-hour clock for up to three consecutive hours. During this off-duty period, drivers could rest or simply wait out heavy traffic.

“This is not rocket science stuff,” Spencer said. “Rest when it makes sense to rest. Drive when it makes sense to drive.”

But critics of the stop-the-clock idea said that would result in a 17-hour work window, heightening the risk of drowsy driving and accidents. There’s no guarantee a trucker can or will sleep during that three-hour stop and a number of them would be driving at the end of a long period of being awake, according to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, a professional society of doctors and scientists.

Harry Adler, executive director of the Truck Safety Coalition, criticized the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration for “appeasing industry.” He said the agency has made the potential rule changes a higher priority than pushing forward with safety technologies such as software that electronically limits a truck’s speed. Bipartisan legislation was introduced in the Senate last week that, if passed, would circumvent the Trump administration’s indefinite delay of a proposed rule requiring new trucks to be outfitted with speed limiters.

“None of this should be up for consideration,” he said. “There is no reason for any of this.”

Article by Richard Lardner, Associated Press

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3 Comments

3 Comments

  1. Joe Hale

    July 1, 2019 at 2:23 pm

    You all know nothing about driving a truck. The only thing you go on is statistics. We cannot make an honest day of work with these stupid regulations in place. Lift them and stiffen the fines for wrecks. Do something, small business is what keeps America rolling. As always the rich get richer and the truck driver goes broke…

  2. James Tull

    July 4, 2019 at 7:45 pm

    Not a one of you in office knows anything about driving cross country now that you have pushed for elds we are racing a clock . These shippers and receivers hold you up six to eight hrs past appointment time and then we are racing click even more . Putting speed limiters on big trucks will not help this period it will just add to wrecks because all the four wheelers will and are know not paying attention to the speed limit at all and I say to all you that want these stupid laws get out here with drivers cross country spend a month or two and see where the real problem is the four wheelers .

  3. R Baker

    July 5, 2019 at 4:42 am

    You failed to include the two hour safe haven exception to the 14 hour rule. If a driver has driving time left, and they run out of the 14 hours, they may go up to 2 hours extra to reach a safe haven to take their 10 hour break. Also the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration will allow drivers to enter into personal conveyance status, whether the truck is loaded or not, to find the nearest safe parking or rest location after their hours of service are exhausted by a shipper/receiver or off-duty periods are interrupted by law enforcement.

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Can you say oversized load!

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That is big!

 

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Diesel prices all but stagnant nationwide, less than 2-cent shift anywhere

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The average price for a gallon of diesel nationwide fell by 0.7 cents for the week ending July 22, to currently stand at $3.044 per gallon, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA).

The lack of movement in diesel prices continues a pattern that has been going on for the past month. On June 24, diesel was at 3.042, with changes of less than 1.5 cents every week in between.

Though tiny, the movement in diesel prices was nearly unanimous this past week, down in all but one region of the country.  That one exception was the Rocky Mountain region, where diesel rose 0.3 cents, to $2.978. Year-to-date, diesel prices are lower in every region, with the Rocky Mountain region again being the standout, having the greatest difference, 39.1 cents from this time last year.

California made it a clean sweep for lower diesel prices year-to-date with a drop of 1.3 cents this past week, to $3.939, still by far the highest in the country, but 0.4 cents below this time last year.

Along the rest of the West Coast, diesel dropped 1.1 cents to $3.198, bringing the overall West Coast average to $3.611 per gallon.

The average along the East Coast is currently $3.072, with prices highest in the Central Atlantic, where diesel is going for $3.259 after a 1.3-cent drop. Diesel is $3.122 in New England following a decrease of 0.9 cents over the past week, while in the Lower Atlantic region diesel slipped by 0.4 cents to stand at $2.937 per gallon.

That’s still slightly better than the Midwest, where diesel is going for $2.948 per gallon after a drop of 0.8 cents. Meanwhile, the Gulf Coast, the low-price leader in diesel, fell by the same 0.1 cent it gained the week before to stand at $2.804.

On Monday, increasing tensions between Iran and Western countries failed to produce a sharp reaction in the crude oil markets. Brent crude, the global benchmark, rose 98 cents, or 1.57%, to settle at $63.45 a barrel. U.S.-based West Texas Intermediate crude rose 59 cents, or 1.06%, to settle at $56.22 a barrel.

Click here for a complete list of average prices by region for the past three weeks.

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DOL opinion letter: Time in sleeper berth does not count as compensable time

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The Department of Labor says the time a truck driver spends in the sleeper berth is not compensable time. Pictured in the Peterbilt 579 UltraLoft sleeper berth. (Courtesy: PETERBILT MOTORS)

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Department of Labor said Monday said it had determined that time spent in the sleeper berth by professional truck drivers while otherwise relieved from duty does not count as compensable time.

The DOL issued the determination in a written opinion letter by the department’s Wage and Hour Division (WHD) on how a particular law applies in specific circumstances presented by the individual person or entity that requested the letter.

The American Trucking Associations lauded the opinion.

“ATA welcomes Monday’s opinion letter from DOL Wage and Hour Division Administrator Cheryl Stanton that concluded time spent by a commercial driver in the sleeper berth does not count as compensable hours under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act, unless the driver is actually performing work or on call,” said ATA President and CEO Chris Spear. “This opinion, which is consistent with decades-old DOL regulations, the weight of judicial authority, and the long understanding of the trucking industry, clears up confusion created by two recent court decisions that called the compensability of sleeper berth time into question.

Significantly, this opinion letter provides new guidance, the DOL said.

Under prior guidance, the DOL said WHD interpreted the relevant regulations to mean that while sleeping time may be excluded from hours worked where “adequate facilities” were furnished, only up to eight hours of sleeping time may be excluded in a trip 24 hours or longer, and no sleeping time may be excluded for trips under 24 hours.

“WHD has now concluded that this interpretation is unnecessarily burdensome for employers and instead adopts a straightforward reading of the plain language of the applicable regulation, under which the time drivers are relieved of all duties and permitted to sleep in a sleeper berth is presumptively non-working time that is not compensable,” the opinion letter said. “There may be circumstances, however, where a driver who retires to a sleeping berth is unable to use the time effectively for his or her own purposes. For example, a driver who is required to remain on call or do paperwork in the sleeping berth may be unable to effectively sleep or engage in personal activities; in such cases, the time is compensable hours worked.”

The ATA commended Acting Secretary Patrick Pizzella and Stanton for adopting a straightforward, plain-language reading of the law, rather than the burdensome alternative interpretation embraced by those outlier decisions.

“ATA also commends the department for making guidance like this available through opinion letters, which provide an opportunity for stakeholders to better understand their compliance obligations prospectively, rather than settling such matters only after the fact, through costly and wasteful litigation,” Spear said.

 

 

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