D.C. Court Curbs FMCSA's Drive for Longer Trucking Hours--Again

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit on Tuesday issued a long-awaited opinion that may have a dramatic effect on federal hours-of-service rules for drivers of commercial motor vehicles. For 60 years, truckers could drive for 10 hours at a time. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration has been trying to change the rule to allow truckers another hour of driving time. FMCSA first decided to increase the drive time in 2003, but the D.C. appeals court struck it down the next year. Congress reinstated the rule later that year, and it went into effect in 2005. Now, the court has again vacated the additional driving hour, as well as a provision that allows an off-duty period of 34 hours to restart the weekly on-duty limits, saying FMCSA did not adequately explain its reasoning for the rules.

Granting a petition from the safety advocacy group Public Citizen, a three-judge panel agreed that FMCSA failed to provide an opportunity for the public to comment on a statistical model the agency used to determine the risks associated with driver fatigue. The agency used the model as the basis for adopting the 11-hour rule and 34-hour restart. Public Citizen attorneys argued that the model failed to take into account the cumulative fatigue caused by increased weekly driving and working hours allowed by the 34-hour restart. Using the restart option, a driver can theoretically gain an extra 17 hours of driving time in a seven-day work week, but FMCSA failed to explain its reasoning for keeping the 34-hour restart in its 2005 rules, the court said.

Tuesday's decision repealed the 2005 rule and will take effect Sept. 14 unless FMCSA gets another hearing. Under court rules of procedure, FMCSA has 45 days to request a rehearing before any changes take effect. If the agency does not request such a hearing, the court will issue a final order within seven days after that. In the meantime, the existing hours-of-service rules remain in effect.

"We are analyzing the decision issued [July 24] 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," FCMSA said in a statement.

The American Trucker Association, which supports the existing 11-hour rule, said it would ask the court to stay its decision and keep the current rule in effect. "ATA believes the existing rules have proven to be a significant improvement over the old rules in terms of reducing driver fatigue and related incidents," said ATA President and CEO Bill Graves. "Motor carrier experience and FMCSA data dramatically illustrate this. ATA plans to provide additional real-world documentation of the effectiveness of the current rules."

But opponents of the current rule cheered the court's decision. Public Citizen, Parents Against Tired Truckers, Citizens for Reliable and Safe Highways, Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters sued to get the rule thrown out.

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