U.S. Sen. Susan Collins of Maine helped move the Senate a step closer Thursday to suspending federal regulations requiring certain hours of rest for long-haul truck drivers.
Highway safety advocates, including a mother from Lisbon whose son was killed by a tired trucker, said Collins’ amendment could increase the risk of fatal accidents involving tractor-trailers.
“At 70 hours a week, truck driving continues to resemble sweatshops on wheels,” said Daphne Izer, whose son and three of his friends were killed in 1993 when a truck driver fell asleep at the wheel after exceeding the number of weekly driving hours allowed by regulations.
After the accident, Izer founded Parents Against Tired Truckers.
“I’m sure (Collins) is getting pressure from the trucking industry to do this,” she said. “It’s her constituents she needs to think about, and safety on the highway.”
Collins’ amendment, to a large transportation funding bill, would suspend for one year a federal requirement that truck drivers who work the maximum of 70 hours in a week take a 34-hour break during the week that includes two consecutive nights off. The earliest a driver can get back on the road after the break is 5 a.m.
That rule, along with other changes to the hours-of-operation rules for truckers, took effect in July 2013, after years of study and legal challenges by industry groups and advocates for highway safety.
During a work session of the Senate Appropriations Committee, on which Collins is the ranking Republican, she argued Thursday that when they researched the rule changes, regulators failed to consider that more trucks would be on the road during peak traffic hours.
“The fact is neither truck drivers, nor their customers nor I, nor anyone in this room ever wants to see an accident caused by driver fatigue or by any other cause,” Collins said. “But what has become clear during the past 11 months is the new federal rules have presented some unintended and unanticipated consequences that are not in the best interest of public safety, truck drivers, or the businesses and consumers that depend on their services.”
Collins’ amendment would let drivers opt for more than one break in a seven-day period and remove the requirement for two consecutive nights off, allowing driving at night after the required period of rest.
Each break is called a “restart” because it gives the driver 70 hours of driving time in the next seven days.
The one-year suspension of the rules would give the U.S. Department of Transportation time, and allot it $4 million, to study whether more trucks on the road during peak hours raises the risk of accidents, according to Collins’ office.
From 2009 to 2012, the rate of fatal truck crashes increased nationwide, reversing a trend of sinking rates. In 2012, the latest year for which statistics are available, truck crashes caused 3,912 deaths, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration projected that last year’s changes to the hours-of-operation rules would prevent 1,400 truck-involved crashes a year, save 19 lives and prevent more than 500 injuries.
Before the rules can be suspended, the transportation bill to which it is attached must be approved by the Senate and reconciled with a spending bill in the House. The Senate Appropriations Committee endorsed the bill, with Collins’ amendment.
Brian Parke, president and CEO of the Maine Motor Transport Association, an industry group that lobbies for truckers, trucking companies and related businesses, said the change would let drivers decide their own schedules while responding to the demands of shipping companies.
“A driver who is off 34 hours is going to get rest,” Parke said. “Only being able to use it once (in a week) hinders a drivers’ flexibility” to take jobs that come up on short notice.
More important, he said, the possibility of further clogging the roads during morning rush hour increases the chance of accidents.
Cesar Solis, a trucker from Pharr, Texas, welcomed the prospect of suspending the “restart” rule.
Solis, 42, who stopped Thursday at the Kennebunk Service Plaza on the Maine Turnpike before pushing on to Middletown, New York, said his pay dropped by as much as $500 a week when the rule took effect last summer because he had to take more time off.
Solis, who has driven trucks for 16 years, said he understands the need for safety, recalling when drivers took more risks, driving for extended periods to earn more money for early deliveries. Now, with a wife and kids, he no longer pushes the limits.
“When I start dozing off I just pull over,” Solis said. “It’s not worth it.”
Matt Byrne can be contacted at 791-6303 or at: