By Aarian Marshall
WASHINGTON, June 25, 2014 – Trucking regulations implemented by the Department of Transportation just last July are again up for debate in Congress, with the produce industry - which argues the rules are ill-conceived - quietly backing their reversal.
An amendment to the 2015 Transportation, Housing and Urban Development appropriations bill, part of the “minibus” appropriations measure that also includes agriculture, would suspend for one year a recently-implemented federal rule that requires truck drivers who work 70 hours per week to take a 34-hour break, including two consecutive nights off. Because truckers are also prohibited by the rules to drive between 1 a.m. and 5 a.m. during such a “reset,” truckers can only return to the road after 5 a.m.
“There are a lot of people in this country who work a night shift,” Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said during a debate on the Senate floor last week. (Collins is a sponsor for the appropriations language that would delay the trucking regulations.) “If you talk to them, they will say what is disruptive to them is working a day shift part of the week, a night shift part of the week, a day shift – back and forth,” she said.
Ken Gilliland, director of international trade and transportation at the Western Growers Association, says his group would support changing some of the trucking regulations that were implemented last July, particularly the 34-hour break rule.
“It’s just one of several regulations…that should be looked at,” he said in an interview. “It’s something that went a little extreme.”
Regulation opponents like Collins also argue the legislation forces truckers to be off the road at the least dangerous time - the early morning hours. According to Department of Labor (DOL) statistics, 79 percent of the fatal crashes in 2012 involving large trucks occurred on weekdays, and of those crashes, 72 percent occurred during daytime, between of 6 a.m. to 5:59 p.m. DOL has not yet released final statistics, however, for 2013 - the year the new regulations were implemented.
In 2011 comments, the United Fresh Produce Association suggested the rules could damage producers’ businesses. Because some produce must reach consumers in 24 hours to be fresh on arrival, “government regulations that decrease the amount of time we have to get our products to consumers can seriously compromise our companies’ ability to do business, as well as consumer access to healthy, nutritious foods,” wrote Julie Manes, director of government relations.
“Furthermore, regulations which lengthen the time it takes to get our products to customers, which we believe these regulations would do, raise food safety concerns.”
Western Growers’ Gilliland points out that the 34-hour rule would indeed force drivers to be on the road longer. If a driver is handling a cross-country shipment, for example, and must do a 34-hour reset that lands him right in the middle of the 1 a.m. to 5 a.m. prohibition, then the 34-hour reset can turn into a 38-hour experience.
“Certainly it means more time off,” he said. “In the cycle of going east, and then going back west, [truckers] will eventually lose a trip.”
Democratic lawmakers, however, say the number of nationwide crashes and fatalities means the federal government needs to stay the course with stricter trucking regulations.
“Tragedies are unfolding more and more frequently,” Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., said on the Senate floor last week while introducing an amendment that would strip the Collins amendment from the appropriations bill.
The debate has been reignited by an early June crash on the New Jersey turnpike that left one dead and comedian Tracy Morgan in critical condition. The trucker involved in that accident, who was employed by Wal-Mart, had not slept for over 24 hours when the crash occurred, according to reports.
Though Booker did not claim that the regulations would have prevented the crash, he said scientific data proved that “the optimal sleep hour” is between 1 a.m. and 5 a.m. – evidence to support keeping the current hours of service regulations.
But Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., broke with her Democratic colleagues to support the Collins amendment. When she heard about the regulations, she said during Senate debate, “I said, ‘That can’t possibly be correct. No one in the federal government would ever mandate when people are supposed to sleep.’ How can you tell people when to sleep and when to be awake?”
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