Sunday, March 9, 2014
By BEN KAMISAR McClatchy Newspapers
WASHINGTON - For commercial truck drivers like Charles Ryser, when the wheels aren't turning, you aren't earning.
David Ryser, left, and son Charles Ryser of Forsyth, Ga., eat after showering at a truck stop recently in Bordentown, N.J. The Rysers oppose the federal rules to counter fatigue.
Jeff Launtenberger/McClatchy Newspapers
Until July, Ryser and his father -- who drive in a team from a base in Forsyth, Ga. -- worked on their own terms. Charles took the day shift, while his father, David Ryser, got behind the wheel at dusk.
But because of a Department of Transportation attempt to cut down on fatigued drivers, Ryser now has to comply with rules that lead to more downtime and force him to switch shifts regularly with his father, breaking him from his rhythm.
"How is that safe, if you have someone trying to alter their sleep pattern on a dime?" he asked.
Like it or not, the rules are here to stay, as efforts to roll back the changes pushed by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, an arm of the Department of Transportation, have failed.
Earlier this month, the DOT won a key legal victory after the U.S. Court of Appeals upheld the vast majority of the rules. The American Trucking Associations and the Owner Operator Independent Drivers Association, the two main groups that strongly oppose the rules, said that any further legal challenges were unlikely.
The rules were crafted in December 2011 to restrict driving hours more tightly. The biggest change comes from restructuring the "restart" that truckers use to reset their weekly count; the DOT says the revision effectively lowers the maximum average workweek for truckers from 82 to 70 hours.
In the past, a workweek could reset anytime after a trucker took 34 consecutive hours off. Now the clock can be reset only once a week and if time off includes two consecutive periods from 1 a.m. to 5 a.m.
The regulations also add a mandatory 30-minute break after eight hours of driving, while reinforcing that truckers still may not drive more than 11 hours a day.
The new restart, advocates say, is aligned with the body's natural tendencies to sleep at night.
The DOT estimates the rule will help prevent 1,400 truck crashes, 560 injuries and 19 deaths per year, while affecting only the less than 15 percent of truckers who drive the most hours.
The DOT doesn't keep truck-specific figures in a way that allows for direct comparison, but a broader category that comprises trucks and buses showed 320,000 crashes in 2011, leading to about 4,000 deaths.
While it's difficult to pinpoint how many truck crashes are due to fatigue, a study sponsored by the DOT concluded that 13 percent of commercial drivers who were involved in serious crashes were fatigued at the time.
But opponents argue that all truckers, not just those with extreme schedules, will feel the ripple effects.
"What they are doing is applying rigidity where there actually needs to be flexibility," said Norita Taylor, a spokeswoman for the Owner Operator Independent Drivers Association. "Not all driver's jobs and businesses are run the same, and not all people run the same in regards to their body clock."
In the case of the Rysers, shipping delays can create unexpected downtime, potentially forcing them into restarts they'd rather not take. They flip their shifts to avoid that scenario.
Now that the rules are permanent, the Owner Operator association plans to focus on a push for increased new-driver training. Currently, long-haul truck drivers don't have mandatory training outside of the commercial driver's license test.
Not everybody is hesitant about stricter regulation.
In fact, Henry Jasny, the vice president of the Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, doesn't think the rules go far enough. His group pushed to move the clock back to pre-2003 regulations, with no restart and a 10-hours-per-day driving limit.
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