The trucking industry's gearing up to go around one more time on hours of service regulations, following Tuesday's announcement from Public Citizen that the Department of Transportation and the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration agreed to conduct a new rulemaking
to settle a lawsuit brought by Public Citizen, Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, the Truck Safety Coalition and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters.

In March 2009, the groups filed suit, asking the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C., to throw out the hours-of-service rule for the third time. The settlement requires the government to draft a new proposed rule governing hours of service within nine months and to publish a final rule within 21 months. The current rule will stay in place during that process.

The safety groups argue that the rule "dramatically expanded driving and working hours by allowing truck drivers to drive up to 11 consecutive hours (instead of 10) each shift and by cutting the off-duty rest and recovery time at the end of the week from a full weekend of 50 or more hours to as little as 34 hours. ... As a result, the rule allowed truckers to spend up to 17 more hours driving each week than previously allowed, a more than 25 percent increase over the prior rule, despite strong evidence that the increased hours would lead to more traffic fatalities and serious consequences for driver health."

The American Trucking Associations responded to the announcement in defense of the current rules. The group says the hours of service rules are working, and the proof is in the industry's safety performance since they took effect in 2004.

"Safety in the trucking industry has greatly improved while operating under the current hours-of-service rules," said ATA President and CEO Bill Graves. "Over the past five years we've seen a strong decline in truck-involved crashes on our nation's highways."

Figures from the U.S. Department of Transportation demonstrate that the trucking industry is now the safest it has been since the DOT began keeping crash statistics in 1975, ATA says. The number of truck-involved fatalities on our highways has decreased by 19 percent since the new HOS rules took effect. The number of injuries has decreased by 13 percent since 2004.

The Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association issued a statement saying it believes that putting hours of service regulations up for a new rulemaking may mean opportunities for improvement, as long as changes are meaningful and include all aspects of driving that affect safety.

"There are things that could be improved upon in the current hours-of-service regulations that we'd like changed, but opening up the issue completely also runs the risk of seeing revisions made that do not affect safety even though they are more restrictive," said Jim Johnston, OOIDA president.

"This means an opportunity to bring up other hours-of-service issues that affect safety," added Johnston, such as loading and unloading times, resurrecting split sleeper berth for team operations, and the current inability to interrupt the 14-hour day for needed rest periods.

The current hours of service rule, which took effect in 2003, has twice before been challenged in court by safety groups. The regulations were modified somewhat following the first challenge, but the revised rule was challenged again in 2005.

In July 2007, the court remanded the hours of service rules to FMCSA, ruling that the agency must provide better explanations of its justifications for adopting the controversial 11-hour drive time and 34-hour restart provisions. Many in the trucking industry interpreted that decision as "procedural," something the agency could fix fairly easily.

In December 2007, FMCSA announced that it was keeping the 11-hour and the 34-hour provisions in an Interim Final Rule. In January 2008, a federal appeals court denied Public Citizen's request to invalidate that interim rule. The final rule was unveiled late last year and went into effect in the final days of the Bush administration.

Previous coverage:
"Safety Groups Challenge Hours of Service in Court Again," 3/10/2009
"ATA Counters Hours of Service Myths," 3/11/2009
"FMCSA Announces Final HOS Rule," 11/19/2008