With the court ruling on July 24 that struck down the federal hours-of-service (HOS) rules for truck drivers having been determined on narrow legal grounds, it is difficult to determine the upshot of this latest twist in the seemingly never-ending saga of HOS reform.
In its unanimous decision, the three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit did not rule against the rules per se, but rather that the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) had not adequately justified the safety impact of the changes it made to HOS regulations in 2005.
Specifically, the agency did not provide “interested parties an opportunity to comment on the methodology of the crash-risk model that the agency used to justify an increase in the maximum number of daily and weekly hours that truck drivers may drive and work.”
As pointed out in a report by The New York Times, most damning to FMCSA was the court's finding that the agency had in fact ignored the results of its own study that indicated there was a substantially higher risk of fatigue-related accidents in the extra hours of service allowed by the revised regulations. The court stated that FMCSA had “failed to provide an adequate explanation for its decision to adopt the 11-hour daily driving limit.”
While trucking interests had supported the 2005 HOS revisions as providing improved safety without overly slowing freight or increasing operational costs, highway safety advocates maintained these reforms were still not sufficient to protect truck drivers and other motorists as fully as possible.
Both Public Citizen and the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association (OOIDA) filed suit against FMCSA last year, seeking to reject the current rules. While the court granted Public Citizen's motion to throw out the 11-hour drive time and 34-hour restart provisions, it did not grant OOIDA's petition to restore the more flexible split-sleeper berth rules that existed before the 2005 revision.
The Teamsters union, a vocal opponent of the existing rules and a plaintiff in the case, hailed the court ruling as a win for both truckers and motorists. “We never thought it was a good idea to allow drivers 11 hours behind the wheel of a heavy piece of machinery,” said Teamsters general president Jim Hoffa. “I hope this ruling forces the Bush administration to start paying attention to highway safety.”
Hoffa added that he was “disappointed” the court upheld the sleeper-berth exception.
FMCSA has 45 days from the date of the decision to petition the court for reconsideration. “We are analyzing the decision… to understand the court's findings as well as determine the agency's next steps to prevent driver fatigue, ensure safe and efficient motor carrier operations and save lives. This decision does not go into effect until September 14, unless the court orders otherwise,” said FMCSA in a statement.
However, anyone involved in the case can seek a stay of the court order — which would serve to keep the current HOS in place until FMCSA or Congress takes further action.
The American Trucking Assns. (ATA), a key supporter of the existing rules, said it plans to file a motion with the court asking it to stay the effective date of its decision “while FMCSA is reconsidering the rule.” ATA stated it would provide support to FMCSA for re-adoption of the 11-hour daily drive time and 34-hour restart.