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Hours of Safety and the Federal Highway Bill

With the recent high profile crash between a Wal-Mart truck driver and limousine in New Jersey resulting in the death of comedian James McNair and hospitalization of actor Tracy Morgan, hours of service is back in the national spotlight. And while any accident resulting in death or injury is an absolute tragedy, it can be noted that current fatalities from accidents involving large trucks remains below historical trends, according to the most recent statistics.

Here is a brief recap of the new provisions that were put into effect July 2013

  • Average work week was limited to 70 hours, a drop from 82 hours prior to the change.
  • Establishes a 30-minute break requirement during the first eight hours of a given shift.
  • Provides an allowance for truck drivers who reach the 70 hour maximum of driving within a given week. This allowance allows for a driver to resume provided they have rested for 24 consecutive hours, including at least two nights from 1:00am-5:00am.

The 34-Hour Restart Rule

The new debate surrounds that last provision, specifically the 34-hour restart rule. Days before the accident in New Jersey, U.S. Senator Susan Collins of Maine, as part of her work on the Senate Appropriations Committee, pushed an amendment through that would block the 34-hour restart provisions. In proposing the amendment Collins stated that it is “clear that the rules have had unintended consequences that are not in best interest of carriers, shippers and the public.”

Although the goal of this new rule making was to reduce what the Department of Transportation calls “excessively long work hours,” the DOT also estimates that the new rule could increase annual industry expenses by approximately $470 million. And while they also estimate that there will be an overall net gain of $280 million due to driver health and other mitigating factors, there are other more nebulous consequences to consider as well.

In an interview with The City Wire, Chris Spear, the chief of legislative affairs for the American Trucking Association (ATA) stated that one such consequence of the new rule is that it would increase the likelihood that drivers are on the road during peak driving times rather than letting them drive at hours when there is less traffic on the roads.

Officially the ATA supports suspending the restrictions, though they do support mandatory use of electronic logging devices to track drivers’ compliance with the new requirements. In addressing the recent controversy surrounding the crash in New Jersey the ATA notes that fatigue is a factor is less than 10% of all truck crashes.

The Federal Highway Bill

The DOT estimates that by the end of fiscal year 2014 the Highway Trust Fund will have run out of money. This does not just affect the highways that we use every day in our line of work, but also how the trucking industry is taxed to support continued funding of national infrastructure improvements. While back in May the industry was cautiously optimistic about the Highway Bill, the new 10-month extension has drawn fire from industry groups, with the ATA calling it “ill-conceived.”

The bid by conservatives in the house and senate reduces funding for the federal-aid highway program and drastically reduces the federal gas tax from 18.4 to 3.7 cents a gallon. The worry on the part of industry is what kind of impact these changes may have on state and local government. How the money in the Highway Trust Fund would be replaced is also a matter of contention.

Because congress has been unable to provide long-term stable funding for transportation, the ATA argues that the current legislation would “prove disastrous to state and local governments’ ability to maintain and improve their transportation systems.” Currently the ATA has been joined by 16 national groups, including AAA and the US Chamber of Commerce in opposing the legislation.

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