Flies in the Ointment

Public Citizen, along with Citizens for Reliable and Safe Highways and Parents Against Tired Truckers, has been pestering trucking for years. Until recently, the groups have done little more than prompt anti-trucking media coverage and hold truck safety pep rallies. That began to change in 2002 when they sued the U.S. Department of Transportation for not issuing a long-awaited revision to the hours-of-service rule.

But they really gained ground last month when their lawsuit prompted a District of Columbia circuit court of appeals to throw out the new hours rule, citing the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s failure to consider driver health, as Congress had mandated. The court also questioned FMCSA’s justification for extending truckers’ driving hours, retaining the sleeper berth exception, including a 34-hour restart, and for not researching the feasibility of electronic on-board recorders. Suddenly, the fly in trucking’s ointment has become the kind that bites – hard.

After weighing its options, chances are FMCSA will come back with a revised rule that at least addresses the impact on driver health. But it’s tough to imagine that being enough to satisfy Public Citizen and company. Smelling blood, it’s likely they’ll continue to push for bigger goals: reducing truckers’ driving hours and forcing compliance through the use of electronic on-board recorders.

CRASH has historically been linked to the railroads; for Public Citizen, truck safety is just a tiny piece of a larger political agenda. But questionable as their motives may be, it’s possible that long-term their tactics could force some positive changes that our industry has been unable to accomplish on its own. Under the new rule, some carriers and shippers have addressed the non-paid time truckers spend waiting on loads. But it’s doubtful even those small improvements would have been made without outside pressure, and more changes are needed. For example, as long as the sleeper berth exception and 34-hour restart are in play, the industry will continue to manipulate truckers’ work hours to make up for inefficiencies in the system – unless it is forced to find a better way.

Many have argued that highways would be safer, truckers would be healthier and the driver shortage would be solved – if only truckers worked fewer hours for better pay. The trick is to reach a point where safety, productivity and fair compensation for truckers are not mutually exclusive concepts. If it takes Joan Claybrook and her cronies to accomplish that feat, trucking has only itself to blame.

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