February 27, 2006

Trucker Fatigue Rule Challenged Again in Court

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Consumer, labor and safety groups sought on Monday to overturn a revised U.S. regulation on rest rules for truckers that permitted them to drive longer, saying the government continues to ignore driver health.

Public Citizen said the Transportation Department (DOT) standard that took effect in October is virtually identical to the one unveiled by the DOT in 2003 and struck down by a federal appeals court the next year.

"That (DOT) chose in both rules to expand driving hours is astounding given its statutory mandate to make safety its highest priority and Congress's specific directive to the agency to reduce fatigue-related incidents," said Joan Claybrook, president of the consumer advocacy group.

Public Citizen was joined in the suit on Monday by Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety and the Teamsters' union -- neither of which was party to the consumer group's successful first challenge.

Before 2003, truckers could drive no more than 10 straight hours before taking a break. They were also prohibited from driving after working 60 hours in seven days or 70 hours in eight, depending on the company's schedule.

Under the new rule, truckers can drive 11 hours straight and work 77 hours in seven days or 88 hours in eight. The new rule also fails to require on-board recorders that would electronically track driver hours and make regulating them easier and more accurate.

"Cheating on paper logbooks is rampant," Public Citizen said.

In striking down the 2003 rule -- the first update of driver rest rules in 60 years -- the appeals court for the District of Columbia said transportation planners did not consider how the changes would affect driver health. The court called the regulation arbitrary.

But the Transportation Department cited health research in its new rule, and officials said it would help reduce fatigue-related crashes.

A spokesman for the agency's Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, Ian Grossman, said Monday the standards in the regulation thoroughly address safety issues.

"We will be working with the Justice Department to vigorously defend our position to the courts," he said.

More than 5 percent of fatal truck crashes are caused by fatigue, safety figures show. Fatalities from large truck crashes increased slightly to an estimated 5,169 in 2004 from 4,986 in 2003, the latest federal crash statistics show.