The Department of Transportation has agreed to deliver five crucial truck safety regulations — some are ten years past deadline — only because it was sued by citizens' groups.
“This is embarrassing for us,” says a DOT official. “Our only defense is that these are complex rules and given the agency's resources, priorities had to be given to the rulemaking agenda. Over the years, other rules took precedence.”
The petition, filed in November by Citizens for Reliable and Safe Highways (CRASH), Parents Against Tired Truckers (PATT), Teamsters for a Democratic Union, and Public Citizen, claimed that rules concerning truck safety — which DOT was supposed to have completed — were overdue, some as much as ten years late.
“In each instance [of rulemaking] DOT has missed the deadline, in some cases by many years. This petition seeks to enforce the mandatory deadlines set by Congress and thereby insure that public safety is served,” the suit stated.
“This lawsuit was born out of frustration,” says Jeff Burns, a Kansas City-based attorney for both PATT and CRASH. “We didn't know what else to do. Our primary message to DOT was: ‘Do your job.’”
Although all federal agencies are sued frequently about their regulations, the issue usually centers on the content of the rules. This suit was different in that it focused simply on getting DOT to abide by laws passed by Congress, which ordered these safety regulations. Last fall, DOT's own Inspector General chastised the department for not delivering regulations in a timely manner.
“This suit is important because the agency has a statutory mandate which they were not fulfilling,” says Marka Peterson, attorney for CRASH, which was a party to the settlement. “These rules are important to public safety, and the agency now has to address the problem.”
Peterson said that her group and DOT began negotiations in January, and they agreed in February to a settlement that sets a rulemaking timetable.
Under the settlement, DOT agrees to publish hours-of-service rules and other fatigue-related issues by May 31, 2003. The rule will become effective no later than 60 days after publication. Because this rulemaking is further along than others in the suit, it will be handled this year. The others will be finalized next year.
By March 30, 2004, the agency must issue a final rule regarding minimum training requirements for drivers of longer combination vehicles. A notice of proposed rulemaking must be published by September 1, 2003.
Also by March 30, 2004, DOT must issue a final rule regarding the background information and safety performance history of commercial drivers who handle hazmat cargo.
A final rule on training standards for entry-level drivers must be published by May 31, 2004, and a notice of proposed rulemaking must be produced by November 1, 2003.
Last, final rules concerning permits for transportation of hazardous materials must be published by June 30, 2004. A notice of proposed rulemaking must be published by December 1, 2003.
According to Peterson, although the settlement agreement has not been entered in court, both parties agreed that it is enforceable in court. If DOT delivers on its deadline promises, CRASH will withdraw the suit, but reserves the right go forward in court on any parts of the settlement that are not met.
“The main thing is that DOT has agreed to deadlines,” says Burns, “It's not only automobile drivers who are affected; truck drivers are injured by not having the rules, too.”