Business & Economy

Trump administration aims to loosen Obama-era truck safety rules

Early morning traffic backs up on Interstate 5 during a Jan. 11 snowstorm in Portland, Ore. Truck drivers say such conditions, combined with limitations on their working hours, cost them a lot of money because of their mileage-based pay.
Early morning traffic backs up on Interstate 5 during a Jan. 11 snowstorm in Portland, Ore. Truck drivers say such conditions, combined with limitations on their working hours, cost them a lot of money because of their mileage-based pay.
Don Ryan/AP

The Trump administration is hitting the brakes on a range of Obama-era trucking safety regulations, and some truckers are hoping for a last-minute reprieve from another safety mandate scheduled to take effect next month.

But advocates worry this rolling back of safety rules will make highways more dangerous.

Truckers, who complain they work in one of the nation's most over-regulated industries, will make the case for deregulation at a House Small Business Committee hearing today that is meant to "explore ways to provide regulatory relief to the industry." Dubbed "Highway to Headache: Federal Regulations on the Small Trucking Industry," the hearing will feature testimony from individual owner-operators as well as owners of small trucking firms.

"Federal regulators simply don't have a clue," says Todd Spencer, executive vice president of the Owner Operator Independent Drivers Association, a trade group. "They don't have a clue what truckers do, how they go about doing it, the environment that they live in, the schedules and things like that, the demands of the job."

Take the federal hours of service rule, for example, which limits truckers to driving for 11 hours per day within a 14 hour period, followed by 10 hours of rest.

"Once your work day starts, then 14 hours later, it has to end," Spencer says. "It doesn't take into account delays that you may encounter at a shipper or receiver, or as a result of construction or congestion, or maybe a crash on the road."

Such delays can waste several hours while a driver is on the clock — and that's a huge problem for truckers because most are paid not by the hour, but by the mile. So while most truck drivers are working around the schedules of everyone else, Spencer says "the regulations sort of fly in the face of that. It's just nuttiness."

And in a few weeks the government may be able to better track truckers' hours, because they'll be required to use electronic logging devices, or ELDs. In the process, the industry will eliminate the use of old paper log books to track hours, a system that dates back to the Roosevelt administration in the 1930s. The documents sometimes are called "comic books" because they're so easily fudged.

Many midsize and bigger trucking companies are on board and already use ELDs across their fleets, but many independent drivers and owner-operators balk at the mandate, citing the cost of the devices — the most popular of which run nearly $500. They're asking the Trump administration for a delay and exemptions for drivers with good safety records.

Safety advocates say there is good reason for the ELD mandate: Fatigue is a common factor in truck-related crashes.

"We see these issues in crash after crash, and we're tired, yes we are tired, of seeing commercial drivers being tired," said Robert Sumwalt, chairman the National Transportation Safety Board. He made the comments at a recent NTSB hearing on a horrific crash involving a tour bus and a semitrailer outside of Palm Springs, Calif., in October of 2016.

Workers prepare to haul away a tour bus that crashed into a semitrailer in October 2016 on Interstate 10 near Palm Springs, Calif. Officials believe the accident, which killed 13 people, involved the drivers of both vehicles falling asleep behind the wheel.
Workers prepare to haul away a tour bus that crashed into a semitrailer in October 2016 on Interstate 10 near Palm Springs, Calif. Officials believe the accident, which killed 13 people, involved the drivers of both vehicles falling asleep behind the wheel.
Rodrigo Pena/AP

In the pre-dawn darkness, police briefly stopped traffic for crews doing some utility work. When the highway reopened several minutes later and traffic started moving again, the semi remained still. Investigators say the truck driver fell asleep at the wheel.

Two minutes later, a tour bus heading back to Los Angeles from a nearby casino with 43 people on board crashed into the truck, killing 13 people and injuring 31 others.

It's a crash the NTSB's Sumwalt says should have never happened.

"On that October morning, on I-10 outside of Palm Springs, the system failed and we had one of the most deadly highway crashes we've seen in recent times," he said.

The truck driver allegedly had falsified his log book to indicate he'd slept more in recent days than he actually had.

Investigators say the bus driver, who was killed in the crash, may not have seen the stopped truck in front of him because he too may have dozed off. They found that both drivers likely suffered from undiagnosed, obstructive sleep apnea, a disorder that often causes fatigue.

Under the Obama administration, Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration regulators were drafting a rule to mandate that drivers be screened and treated for sleep apnea, but in August the Trump administration abruptly reversed course.

"It is unacceptable that they have pulled this rule back," Sumwalt says, referring to the FMCSA. "And here's a case where people just riding on a bus, just paying money to go to a casino and back — they died because of obstructive sleep apnea in two drivers in two separate vehicles."

The sleep apnea rule is not the only safety regulation halted in recent months. The FMCSA also killed a revamp of the motor carrier safety rating system and halted development of a rule requiring speed-limiting devices on trucks. Efforts to require underride guards on trailers — which would stop a car in a collision before the passenger compartment could wedge under the trailer — and automatic emergency braking on trucks are also now on hold.

"I find the current climate troubling," says John Lannen, executive director of the Truck Safety Coalition, who says the Trump administration is undermining safety at a time when the number of serious truck-related crashes, injuries and fatalities are on the rise.

"All the numbers are trending the wrong way," Lannen says. "We're over 4,000 deaths a year now in truck crashes. It's been going up steadily and we need to do something now."

Whether more safety provisions could be cut once a new FMCSA administrator takes office isn't yet clear. President Trump's nominee Ray Martinez is expected to be confirmed by the Senate in coming weeks.

But with the president vowing to repeal two regulations for every new one that's approved, even more rules designed to improve highway safety could wind up on the chopping block.

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