In 2003, after intense lobbying by the politically powerful trucking industry, regulators rejected proposals to tighten drivers’ hours and instead did the opposite, relaxing the rules on how long truckers could be on the road. Government officials had also turned down repeated requests from insurers and safety groups for more rigorous training for new drivers.
In loosening the standards, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration was fulfilling President Bush’s broader pledge to free industry of what it considered cumbersome rules. In the last six years, the White House has engaged in a reckless strategy of deregulation. Largely unchecked by the Republican-led Congress, federal agencies, often led by former industry officials, have methodically removed safety regulations and have delayed enforcement of others. The Bush administration claims these changes are justified by huge savings for businesses and consumers.
The federal government’s oversight of the trucking industry has been a primary target of deregulation. The loosened standards, the industry argues, have made it faster and cheaper to move goods across the country. They also say the changes promote safety; without longer work hours, the industry would be forced to put more drivers with little experience behind the wheel. Regulators and industry officials point out that the death toll of truck-related accidents — about 5,000 annually — has not increased, while the fatality rate, the number of deaths per miles traveled, has continued a long decline. The number of annual injuries has also been dropping slowly, falling to 114,000 last year.
But advocates of tighter safety counter that the fatality rate for truck-related accidents remains nearly double that involving only cars. Safety and insurance groups say that weakening the rules has reversed a course set by the Clinton administration and has resulted in the federal government repeatedly missing its own targets for reducing the death rate.
In decisions that had the support of the Bush administration, the motor carrier agency has eased the rules on truckers’ work hours, rejected proposals for electronic monitoring to combat widespread cheating on drivers’ logs and resisted calls for more rigorous driver training.
The federal government began overseeing the trucking industry in the 1930s, setting rates, limiting competition and regulating safety practices. From the start, companies won important concessions from Washington, including exemptions from minimum wage and other labor laws. The industry also resisted efforts to impose tougher safety standards, saying it could police itself.
In 1937, the first driving hour limits were set. Truckers were allowed drive up to 10 continuous hours but were required to rest for a minimum of 8 hours. The remaining six hours could be used for other work activities, like loading, or for breaks or meals. Truckers could drive up to 60 hours over 7 consecutive days, or 70 hours over 8 days. To enforce those rules, the government required drivers to keep logs.
Repeated efforts over the years to tighten the rules were blocked, often as a result of vigorous industry lobbying. Trucking companies have long argued that tougher standards are not necessary to promote safety, and that they would cause devastating economic pressures. Profit margins in the industry are thin, particularly after economic deregulation in 1980 prompted competition. Long hours and low pay for drivers have led to high turnover, and carriers struggle to find replacements. Those conditions, safety experts say, have contributed to widespread safety problems.
The practice of falsifying driver hours is an open secret in the industry; truckers routinely refer to their logs as “comic books.” Fines are small. The federal motor carrier agency does not have the staff to monitor closely 700,000 businesses and almost eight million trucks.
In 1995, Congress directed regulators to study truck driver fatigue and its safety consequences and to consider new rules. But the agency then charged with truck safety, the Federal Highway Administration, never did so. Two years later, the Clinton administration vowed to cut the annual death toll of truck-related accidents in half within a decade. In 1999, Congress created the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration in response to what lawmakers considered ineffectual regulation and high casualties.
A year later, the agency proposed tighter service hour rules. They would allow long-haul drivers to work a maximum of 12 hours a day, and require them to take 10-hour breaks between shifts. They also required installation of electronic devices to replace driver logs.
In April 2003, the agency issued rules that increased the maximum driving hours to 77 from 60 over 7 consecutive days and to 88 hours from 70 over 8 consecutive days. It capped daily work hours at 14, which included driving as well as waiting for loading and unloading. The agency also decided not to require truck companies to install electronic monitoring devices.
The agency said the new rules would modestly decrease the number of fatalities by increasing the required time off for drivers, to 10 hours from 8. A year later, the agency set training standards for new drivers: 10 hours of training, none of it on the road.
The courts have become involved as safety groups and the teamsters union seek safer roads. In July 2004, a three-judge panel from the federal appeals court in Washington issued a harsh opinion in a lawsuit brought by several safety organizations over the trucking work rules. A year later, in August 2005, the agency issued virtually identical rules, which the safety groups and the Teamsters union are again challenging in court.
The agency had a similar legal setback on driver training. A three-member appeals court panel called the regulation “baffling” and criticized the agency for ignoring its own studies on the need for more comprehensive training. The agency has not responded to the court’s decision by issuing any new rules.
Meanwhile, the agency has failed, by growing margins, to meet its annual targets for lowering the death rate for truck-related accidents.