The Senate Appropriations Committee today approved a measure to suspend for one year the Department of Transportation's (DOT's) controversial provision that governs when commercial truck drivers must take required breaks before heading back on the road. During the suspension, FMCSA will be required to study the impacts of the changes, specifically on increased daytime driving caused by them.
By a 21-9 vote, the committee cleared an amendment offered by Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, to suspend the so-called restart language included in the drivers' hours-of-service rules crafted by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA), DOT's safety subagency.
The Collins amendment was included in a $54.5 billion appropriations bill to fund the fiscal year 2015 operations of DOT and the Department of Housing and Urban Development. The bill now heads to the Senate floor. If approved, House-Senate conferees will meet to hammer out a conference report.
The "restart" provision, which took effect July 1, placed limits on a driver's 34-hour minimum rest period, an unprecedented step in the industry's history. Drivers are now required to take their breaks once every seven days and to include within that cycle two breaks between 1 a.m. and 5 a.m. over two consecutive days.
The provision was part of a broad change in late 2011 to federal policy governing driver operations. FMCSA reduced a driver's seven-day workweek to 70 hours from 82 hours, a 15 percent cut. It also barred truckers from driving more than eight hours without first taking at least a 30-minute off-duty break. The agency left unchanged language allowing 11 hours of continuous drive time after a driver has spent 10 consecutive hours off duty, instead of reducing the number of continuous driving hours to 10.
The trucking industry mounted a legal challenge to the hours-of-service rules, notably the restart provisions. However, a federal appeals court last August upheld virtually all of the DOT's policy.
Shipper and trucking groups have argued that the restart language is unsupported by science and forces many drivers to take rest when they don't need it. The provision also takes drivers off the road during the predawn hours when many would normally operate on mostly uncrowded highways, according to the groups. To make matters worse, it puts more drivers on the road during traditional rush hours when they are commingled with commuters on already-congested thoroughfares, they argue.
In addition, many drivers would be forced to take their consecutive breaks over the weekend instead of mid-week, thus disrupting the supply chains of many businesses set up to ship at the end of the week and receive the goods by Monday, according to the freight groups.
This is not the first time lawmakers have tried to attach an amendment freezing the restart provisions to the bi-agency appropriations bill. A similar effort failed last year.
Sen. Collins is considered one of the trucking industry's strongest allies in Congress. In 2011, she led an effort to allow trucks with a 97,000-pound gross vehicle weight (the combined weight of the tractor, trailer, and cargo) on Maine's interstate highways, a move designed to remove the heavier vehicles from state and local roads. Until then, trucks traversing interstate highways through Maine were limited to an 80,000-pound gross vehicle weight.
Shippers and big trucking firms have tried unsuccessfully to convince federal lawmakers and regulators to allow trucks at the heavier gross vehicle weight threshold to operate on the federal highways. Currently, six states including Maine permit the heavier trucks to operate on their respective interstate roads. About 40 states allow the heavier trucks to drive on their respective state roads.