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Legal challenges over federal regulations governing hours-of-service for long-haul truck drivers have put Maine trucking companies in a bind: Do they wait for a favorable court ruling on their national trade group’s challenge of those rules before the July 1 compliance date? Or, do they take on training and implementation costs that could be negated if the regulations are overturned?

At issue are rules the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, or FMCSA, says are intended to reduce the risk of fatigue-related crashes and long-term health problems for drivers. The American Trucking Associations, or ATA, a national trade association representing 2,000 member companies, says those assertions are not supported by science.

The ATA contends the existing rules have a proven track record of reducing the number of large-truck crashes and should be left alone. A coalition of advocacy groups that include Public Citizen, on the other hand, say the new regulations don’t go far enough in making sure fatigued truck drivers involved in interstate commerce are kept off the highways.

For the trucking industry, the stakes are high: Based on the FMCSA’s estimate of the time necessary to train drivers on the new rule, along with software reprogramming and related transition costs, the ATA pegs the cost of implementation at $320 million before the July 1 deadline. The FMCSA says public safety is of far-greater value, estimating that truck driver fatigue is the cause of 13 percent of large-truck crashes nationwide.

The impact in Maine is hard to pinpoint, since many trucking companies engage in short-haul work that allows truckers to complete their work each day and have weekends off — thereby avoiding the new requirements. The federal government estimates training, reprogramming and other transition costs related to its hours-of-service rule will cost $200 for each long-haul driver.

It also estimates an additional annual cost of $270 per driver from lost productivity due to fewer hours of driving time.

“We believe the safety benefits provided by the rule are paramount,” says Duane DeBruyne, spokesman for the federal agency created in 2000 to reduce crashes, injuries and fatalities involving large trucks and buses. Lowering the number of crashes due to driver fatigue and improved trucker health is projected to carry a net benefit of almost $300 million annually.

DeBruyne says the hours-of-service rule involves four basic changes:

  1. Limits a long-haul truck driver to no more than eight hours of continuous driving before being required to take a 30-minute break. Driving is also limited to no more than 11 hours total following 10 consecutive hours off duty.
  2. It reduces by 12 hours the maximum number of hours a truck driver can drive during a work week – reducing it from 82 hours to 70 hours.
  3. It requires truck drivers who maximize their weekly work hours to take at least two nights’ rest from 1 a.m. to 5 a.m. This rest requirement is part of the rule’s “34-hour restart” provision that allows drivers to restart the clock on their work week by taking at least 34 consecutive hours off-duty. Drivers are allowed to use the restart provision only once during a seven-day period.
  4. It clarifies how a driver can count hours in the sleeper berth, as well as being off duty, in computing overall hours of service.

DeBruyne says the change, enacted last year, will be enforced starting July 1. Penalties imposed by FMCSA on drivers or carriers can range from $1,000 to $11,000 per violation depending on severity.

The ATA, however, has asked the federal government to hold off until its February 2012 legal challenge, which a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia heard in March, has been decided, according to Richard Pianka, ATA’s vice president and deputy chief counsel.

“It’s going to cost more than $300 million to train drivers and several million more for the enforcement community to get ready for the July 1 compliance date,” Pianka said. “We thought it makes sense to delay implementation of the hours-of-service rule changes until three months after the court issues its decision.”

FMCSA denied that request, he says, and since there’s no deadline for when the appellate court must rule, it means long-haul truckers and companies will soon be spending money gearing up for changes that could be negated if the court throws out the new rules.

Pianka says the basis of the ATA’s objections is what he characterizes as the federal government’s “arbitrary and capricious” cost-benefit analysis for changing rules governing rest breaks and the 34-hour restart provision. He says the federal agency’s assertion that 13 percent of large truck crashes are due to driver fatigue “is far too high.”

He says also that the government has understated the economic impact of limiting the 34-hour restart period to two consecutive nights between 1 a.m. and 5 a.m., instead of allowing for a flexible time-frame as had been allowed by the previous rule, especially for food suppliers who rely on night-time driving or early-morning delivery times.

Tim Doyle, vice president of the Maine Motor Transport Association, whose 1,200 member companies employ more than 30,000, says since many Maine trucking companies are short-haul carriers, their drivers won’t be affected as much by the new requirements as long-haul carriers and drivers. Even so, he agrees with Pianka that the 34-hour restart provisions will be particularly troublesome and could increase delivery times and shipping costs for goods hauled over long distances.

“We certainly stand with the ATA on this issue,” he says. “We’re hoping it will be resolved soon.”

“There’s a lot of uncertainty to whether this thing is going to go through or not,” says Sheldon Cote, safety director of Pottle’s Transportation Inc., a Bangor long-haul carrier whose fleet of 130 tractor-trailers carry goods primarily east of the Mississippi. “Nobody is making a move right now. We know the potential is there, but we’re not operating under those new rules just yet.”

But Cote says that will change soon, even if the appellate court has not yet ruled on the ATA’s challenge of the new hours-of-service rules.

“Starting in mid-May, we’ll be getting geared up to implement the rules, so that on July 1 our drivers will be familiar with them and following them before the compliance date,” he says. “It’s going to affect us somewhat, but not as much as the companies that have truckers rolling three to four weeks at a time.”

Retailer concerns

“I’m hoping the whole [hours-of-service rule] gets shot down,” says John Katzianer, safety manager for Bisson Transportation Inc., a trucking company based in Brunswick whose services include truckload freight hauling in the eastern 37 states, freight brokerage and yard management. “When the wheels are not turning, the truckers are not being paid and nobody is making money.”

Katzianer says the new hours-of-service rules will “cost our company several thousand dollars in new software.” His greater concern, though, is the impact they will have on scheduling and delivery times for freight being transported over long distances.

Shippers and receivers, he says, have embraced just-in-time delivery and lean manufacturing practices to reduce their inventory costs. Trucking companies have created finely tuned distribution systems to meet those needs and deliver goods as quickly and efficiently as possible. For long-haul shippers, he says, the 34-hour restart rule will wreak havoc with the route planning and scheduling.

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, the ranking member of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, has entered the fray by joining a bipartisan group of lawmakers in a letter to Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood asking him to delay implementing the hours-of-service rules.

“Delaying the July 1 effective date is the most responsible course of action to take, given the uncertainty of where the court will come down,” Collins and the other lawmakers wrote in their letter.