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Safety groups take HOS challenge to federal court

Sept. 18, 2020
With less than two weeks before the revised HOS rules take effect, four safety advocacy groups filed a petition with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit seeking to invalidate the new rules.

In less than two weeks, federal hours of service (HOS) are set to take effect for commercial drivers across the country. The new rules have been revised to create more flexibility for drivers while keeping a focus on highway safety, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) has maintained.

However, four safety advocacy groups disagree. On Sept. 16, the Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety (AHAS), the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, Parents Against Tired Truckers (PATT) and Citizens for Reliable and Safe Highways (CRASH) filed a petition with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit seeking to invalidate this rule. They are represented by Public Citizen Litigation Group.

In June, FMCSA announced its HOS changes, which cover four main areas that loosen restrictions for the short-haul exception, adverse driving conditions, 30-minute break, and the sleeper berth provision.

“Under the guise of increased flexibility, the changes will further exacerbate the already well-known threat of fatigue among commercial motor vehicle (CMV) drivers by significantly weakening current HOS rules,” the groups said in a statement. “Specifically, provisions that ensured drivers receive a brief 30-minute break after being on duty for eight hours and that govern the operations of drivers who start and return to the same location and remain within a defined geographic area known as ‘short haul’ operations were significantly altered. In proposing these revisions, the FMCSA contradicted its own prior conclusions on these very issues and failed to undertake a proper analysis of the impacts the rule will have on truck drivers and the motoring public.” 

Back in May, then FMCSA Acting Administrator Jim Mullen, who later announced his resignation for the end of August, broke down the revisions to the HOS rules during a press conference. During that call, Mullen said the revisions were the result of 8,000 public comments the agency received and were made to add “needed flexibility in the lives of America’s truckers.”

“Each of these changes were based on the feedback we received from the thousands of public comments we received during the rulemaking and through the listening sessions we held around the country,” Mullen said in May. “It is also important to note that this new rule will not increase driving time and will continue to prevent CMV operators from driving for more than eight consecutive hours without at least a 30-minute change-in -duty status.”

Over the course of two years, the U.S. Department of Transportation has been updating HOS rules that govern the driving times and schedules of commercial drivers. U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine L. Chao has also reiterated that the final revisions “provide much-needed flexibility for drivers while maintaining safety on the roads.”

When those revisions were announced, the AHAS immediately petitioned the FMCSA for reconsideration of the final rule, arguing that “the changes will further exacerbate the already well-known threat of fatigue among commercial motor vehicle drivers by significantly weakening current HOS and electronic logging device rules.”  

“Truck driving is one of the most dangerous professions in our nation. The pressures and responsibilities drivers face are colossal, especially during the pandemic,” said AHAS President Cathy Chase on Sept. 16. “Taking away a 30-minute break to get a cup of coffee or stretch one’s legs makes no sense, especially considering that driver fatigue is a known major contributor to crashes.

"If I fall asleep on the job, my head hits the keyboard," she continued. "If a truck driver falls asleep, his/her head hits the windshield and that’s only part of the catastrophic outcome. Allowing operators to work longer hours and drive farther distances without proper rest breaks and other protections ignores science, data, and expert opinion, including that of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB). With large truck crash fatalities on the rise for five consecutive years, the FMCSA should be taking action to advance proven solutions to reduce crashes, such as requiring automatic emergency braking, rather than eviscerating the minimal truck driver protections.”

In the same statement, International Brotherhood of Teamsters General President James P. Hoffa claimed that by issuing the revised HOS regulations “FMCSA has bowed to special trucking industry interests at the expense of highway safety, seeking longer workdays for drivers who are already being pushed to the limit. We join this lawsuit to ensure that our members and their families are protected from fatigued drivers when they use our nation’s highways,” he said.

CRASH Chair and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) former Administrator Joan Claybrook stated that FMCSA regulators “are once again failing to protect public safety.” The groups are urging the courts to halt FMCSA’s proposal.

“The FMCSA is supposed to protect truck drivers and the public from unsafe driving conditions, but this rule does the opposite and puts the health and safety of these workers at risk,” stated Public Citizen Litigation Group attorney Adina Rosenbaum.

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