Trouble in Truckin’: Court Limits Hours Behind the Wheel

July 25th, 2007 by

A federal appeals court on Tuesday struck down the Bush administration’s rules that increased the number of hours a trucker can spend behind the wheel. In an article by Stephen Labaton in the New York Times, we read that the Bush approach increased weekly hours to 77 from 60 over 7 consecutive days, and to 88 hours from 70 over 8 days. The rules also permitted up to 11 hours of driving per day. (At one point, legislation was proposed to increase the allowable hours of driving to 14 per day – see our posting here.)
The court found that the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration had ignored the results of its own study, which reviewed more than 50,000 truck accidents from 1991 to 2002. Using the data, the study extrapolated a substantially higher risk of fatigue-related accidents in the extra hours of service allowed by the new rules.
The court’s ruling does not take effect until September. In the meantime: data, shmata. Let’s haul our aching bodies into the cab and keep on truckin’!
Twelve Gear Reaction
The American Trucking Associations have already challenged the ruling. Their press release states:

The current rules limit driving time to 11 hours and mandate a 10-hour rest time. ATA supports the current regulation, which promotes a regular work-rest cycle for truck drivers and a schedule that is closer to a 24-hour circadian rhythm. The 11th hour of driving time safely provides flexibility for trucking operations without increasing driver fatigue. The 34- hour restart gives drivers much greater flexibility to manage their time, relieving stress and allowing more time at home.

I find the references to circadian rhythms and an enhanced home life a bit disingenuous. As my colleague Julie Ferguson reminded us in a recent post, truck drivers in general are notoriously unhealthy. They’re overweight, they smoke and they have trouble sleeping. Their health problems contribute substantially to the high rate of fatalities among drivers and the increased dangers to other drivers on the road. But heck, if they can’t sleep anyway, why not just let them keep on driving?
Flexibility versus Regulation
Industry supporters of the loosened standards say they have made it faster and cheaper to move goods across the country. (There is a similar argument, of course, justifying the widespread use of undocumented workers in many labor-intensive, low-paying jobs.) The trucking industry says that the revised rules promoted safety (that sounds a bit dubious) and that shorter hours would force the industry to put more drivers with little experience behind the wheel.
Is that really the choice: limit the hours of skilled drivers and suffer the consequences of inexperienced truckers – or increase the hours of skilled drivers and risk their making fatigue-fueled mistakes? Allow flexibility and personal choice, or set strict safety limits and enforce them?
The freedom versus regulation arguments raise some interesting issues about our collective ability to manage risk. Is it worth the savings in dollars and time to over-extend truckers, especially in light of the compromised personal health that seems to accompany their choice of occupation? How do truckers (as opposed to their associations) feel about the regulations?
I know how I feel. When I’m driving 70 miles per hour down an interstate, sandwiched between two rigs, I’m just hoping the other guys are sipping strong java and are tenaciously awake.