Appeals court upholds new hours for truck drivers
Larry Thomas -- Furniture Today, September 2, 2013
WASHINGTON - A federal appeals court has upheld most of the government's new hours-of-service rules for truck drivers, rejecting arguments from trucking industry lawyers that the rules were arbitrary and based on faulty analysis of crash statistics.
However, the three-judge panel from the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia circuit did strike down a requirement for a 30-minute off-duty rest break for shorthaul drivers.
Long-haul drivers - truckers who operate more than 150 miles from their reporting location - still have to take the rest break after eight hours of driving in a single day, and all drivers will have to comply with the controversial new 34-hour restart rule, the appeals court ruled.
The rules were announced by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration in December 2011 and went into effect July 1.
"While we are disappointed the court chose to give unlimited deference to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration's agenda-driven rulemaking, the striking down of the short-haul break provision is an important victory," said Dave Osiecki, senior vice president of policy and regulatory affairs for the American Trucking Assns., which filed suit to block the new rules.
Osiecki, a speaker at Furniture Today's Logistics Conference in June, noted that the court was somewhat critical of the FMCSA, but deferred to the agency's expertise.
"The court recognized on numerous occasions the shortcomings of the agency's deliberations, so despite upholding most of the rule, we hope this opinion will serve as a warning to FMCSA not to rely on similarly unsubstantiated rulemakings in the future," he said.
"One thing this rulemaking makes clear is fatigue is a small problem when viewed through a crash causation lens. ATA hopes FMCSA will work with the trucking industry to address more pressing safety and driver behavior issues, including those than can be directly affected through proven traffic enforcement activities aimed at unsafe operating behaviors."
In its 22-page ruling, the appeals court noted that, historically, the FMCSA has made distinctions between short-and long-haul drivers in its rules. However, the court found that the newest rule "contains not one word justifying the agency's decision to apply the new requirement (for rest breaks) to the unique context of short-haul operations."
The court rejected the ATA's challenge to the new requirement that drivers be off duty when taking their rest breaks - meaning they can't complete paperwork, truck maintenance, or any other task related to their job.
The trucking group argued the federal agency relied on a flawed study that concluded off-duty rest breaks reduce crash risks.
"ATA is certainly free to quarrel with the study's methodology, but given our deference to the agency in such matters, we have no reason to doubt that FMCSA made a ‘reasoned decision based on reasonable extrapolations from some reliable evidence,'" the court said, quoting in part from a 1990 opinion that upheld some Environmental Protection Agency rules.
The court also left intact the agency's new 34-hour restart rule, which the trucking industry argued would hurt productivity.
The restart requirement means that, once a driver has been on duty for 60 hours in a sevenday period, he must be off duty for 34 consecutive hours in order to "restart" his work week. That part of the rule has been in effect for years, but the FMCSA added the provision that the 34 hours of offduty time must include two periods between 1 a.m. and 5 a.m.
The court acknowledged the new rule "strongly encourages nighttime drivers who generally sleep during the day to switch to nighttime sleep during the restart," but the judges accepted the FMCSA argument that its studies demonstrated the rule will help alleviate driver fatigue.
"ATA takes issue with the study's methodology and the conclusions FMCSA draws from it ... but we must unquestionably defer to an agency's expertise in weighing and evaluating the merits of scientific studies," the court said.
An ATA spokesman said the organization is unlikely to appeal the ruling to the Supreme Court.