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Court Ruling to Block Truckers’ “Hours of Service” Rule is Sweeping Victory for Highway Safety

July 16, 2004

Court Ruling to Block Truckers’ “Hours of Service” Rule is Sweeping Victory for Highway Safety

WASHINGON, D.C.  In a major victory for the safety of motorists and truck drivers, a federal court on Friday unanimously struck down a Bush administration regulation that increased both the consecutive hours and the weekly hours that truck drivers are permitted to drive without rest.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit said the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) failed to consider the effect of the new rules on the health of truck drivers – as it is required to do under law. The three-judge panel also expressed grave doubt that any of the challenged aspects of the agency’s regulation could survive scrutiny. The court ordered the agency to revise its regulation in a manner consistent with the court’s opinion.

“This is a sweeping victory for the safety of not only truck drivers but for the motoring public as well,” said Public Citizen President Joan Claybrook. “Tired truck drivers are a major danger on our highways, and this rule was a formula for more deaths and injuries. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration ignored its mission and approved a standard that violates its own statute.”

Public Citizen, along with Parents Against Tired Truckers and Citizens for Reliable and Safe Highways, challenged the rule promulgated by the Bush administration in April 2003, after first suing the agency in 2002 for not issuing five truck-safety regulations proposed under the Clinton administration in 2000. The FMCSA agreed to issue the “hours of service” rule after the first suit but significantly revised the original, proposed standard. The case was argued by Public Citizen Litigation Group attorney Bonnie Robin-VergeerAdvocates for Highway and Auto Safety filed an amicus brief on the winning issue of driver health.

Large truck crashes are particularly lethal because they usually involve much smaller passenger cars. In fact, 98 percent of those killed in truck vs. passenger vehicle crashes are in the smaller cars. Nearly 700 truck drivers die in crashes each year. Truck driving is one of America’s most hazardous occupations.

Under the new rule, truckers spend more consecutive hours driving than previously. The rule permitted a 14-hour workday with up to 11 hours of consecutive driving.  Previously, truckers could drive no more than 10 consecutive hours. As the court noted, the agency made this change despite the fact that it “freely concedes” that the risk of driving long hours increases geometrically during the 10th and 11th hours on duty. Also, under the new rule, truckers were allowed to drive up to 77 hours in seven days, or 88 hours in eight days – a more than 25 percent increase over the old rules.

Not only did the court take the agency to task for permitting these dramatic increases in driving time, it faulted the agency for failing to make other important improvements to the rules that the agency initially proposed but then abandoned in the final regulation. The court found “unimpressive” FMCSA’s justifications for failing to prohibit the practice of drivers splitting their required rest into two short and inadequate blocks of sleep in their sleeper-berths. It similarly found the agency’s rationales for not requiring long-haul truckers to use electronic onboard recorders to monitor driver compliance to be “of questionable rationality” given drivers’ widespread flouting of the rules. 

The court’s decision vacates the new trucking regulation in its entirety, sending FMCSA back to the drawing board to issue a new rule that complies with statutory mandates and is supported by research demonstrating both the limits on the number of hours that truck drivers can drive safely without rest and the need for drivers to obtain sleep of sufficient length and quality.

To view the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit decision, click here.