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Appeals court upholds new rule on truck drivers' hours of service

How many hours could you drive before you became so drowsy you couldn’t drive safely? How many hours before you would actually fall asleep at the wheel? What if you were driving a 80,000-pound truck?

The question of how many hours commercial truck drivers can safely work without endangering others due to driver fatigue has been the subject of a ferocious debate for the past 14 years -- a debate involving multiple appeals to federal courts involving the hours-of-service rules put into place by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. Those rules, meant to limit drivers’ hours in order to reduce fatigue-related truck accidents, have now gone through what is presumably their final appeal, and the FMCSA’s latest rules have been upheld.

According to data from the FMCSA and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, truck driver fatigue is a large and growing problem. According to a 2007 study the regulators performed, fatigue was a factor in around 13 percent of traffic accidents involving large commercial trucks, although the trucking industry disputes that. Moreover, the two safety agencies say that truck accidents themselves are on the increase -- those involving injuries rose 10 percent in the decade leading to 2011, the latest information available.

While commercial carriers and highway safety organizations may disagree about exactly how many hours truckers can drive without taking a substantial break, both were willing to engage in what the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, which heard this final appeal, called “permanent warfare.”

The FMCSA’s new rule, which officially went into effect on July 1, limit commercial drivers’ daily driving hours to a maximum of 11, during a maximum 14-hour workday. It also cut back their weekly maximum hours to 70, from a previous limit of 82. After 70 hours, the driver must stop driving for at least 34 consecutive hours, which must also contain two consecutive nights. Short-haul drivers were also required to take a 30-minute break within the first eight hours of any shift,

The court of appeals upheld all of the rules except the 30-minute break for short-haul truckers. Interestingly, when trucking industry lawyers tried to argue that the rules were too costly compared to any potential gains from reductions in truck accidents, the court rebuffed them, candidly deferring to the FMCSA’s expertise.

Hopefully, the 14-year battle among traffic safety groups, the trucking industry and federal regulators is now over.

“The ruling recognizes the sensible, data-driven approach that was taken,” said an FMCSA spokesperson. It “also provides added certainty for all affected, moving forward.”

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