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New rules ease rest mandates for truck drivers

Government says the changes won't affect safety. Teamsters and safety advocates aren't so sure

A truck rolls along I-95 in Oxon Hill, Md.
A truck rolls along I-95 in Oxon Hill, Md. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration on Thursday announced final regulations that aim to settle years of debate over how to give drivers flexibility in limits on their driving hours while preventing accidents caused by driver fatigue.

In a press call with acting administrator Jim Mullen and Secretary of Transportation Elaine L. Chao, Mullen said the final rules that have been in the works since 2018 would not add to the hours drivers can operate their trucks during a workday but provide more options for when they can take breaks. 

FMCSA estimates the new rules will save the trucking industry $274 million annually over 10 years. The rule change follows two years of debate and 8,000 public comments, Chao said. 

Safety advocates and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters were among those critical of the new rules.

[Truckers took a pass in first recovery bill, but not this time]

Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety President Cathy Chase said the rule would extend drivers’ already demanding work days and reduce their opportunity to rest.

“The rule issued today contradicts the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s statutory duty to reduce crashes, injuries and fatalities,” she said.

Teamsters General President James P. Hoffa said “allowing truck drivers to work longer and longer each day puts everyone on the roads at risk.”

The rules had limited most commercial truck drivers to 11 hours of driving in a 14-hour work day but with specified breaks. The timing, nature and duration of breaks are more flexible under the revisions.

The announcement of the rules comes at a difficult time for the trucking industry. The economic changes brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic wreaked havoc on demand for shipping. While some trucking firms have faced high demand, such as those delivering food to grocery stores or medical equipment to hospitals, others, such as those delivering retail products or auto parts, have seen demand drop dramatically.

Drivers have complained about pandemic-driven changes in working conditions, including the closure of highway rest areas. 

Chao and Mullen suggested during the call that the added flexibility on break rules would help truckers during a particularly tricky time for the industry.

“Truckers are really American heroes, especially at a time like this,” Chao said, stressing the rules would not increase driving time and will still require drivers to take at least a 30-minute break during an eight-hour driving period. 

On-duty duration

The new rule would lengthen the maximum on-duty period for short-haul truckers from 12 to 14 hours and extend the driving-distance limit from 100 air miles to 150 air miles.

It would allow drivers under certain adverse driving conditions to extend their driving window by up to two hours.

It would change the requirement that drivers take a 30-minute rest period within the first eight hours of coming on duty, allowing them instead to take a break after eight consecutive hours of driving. Any on-duty time not spent driving can be counted as break time under the new rule. 

It also changes the accounting of hours drivers spend in the sleeping berths of their trucks.

Rep. Sam Graves, R-Mo., the ranking Republican on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, applauded the announcement, saying “they recognize that a one-size-fits-all approach does not give drivers the necessary flexibility to make the right decisions to safely operate their vehicles.”

Industry groups also reacted with praise. American Trucking Associations President and CEO Chris Spear said the rule would “result in needed flexibility for America’s professional truck drivers while maintaining the safety of our roads.” Lewie Pugh, executive vice president of Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, said the new rules mean “truckers will soon have a little bit more control over their daily schedules.”

“While we were hoping for some additional changes such as more split-sleeper options and more flexibility to use the 30 minute break, all things considered we’re happy with the final rule,” he said, saying finding a balance to please all parties is “virtually impossible.”

“Nothing is easy in D.C. but this is a step in the right direction,” he said.

The rules will go into effect 120 days after being published in the Federal Register.

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