As members of Congress worked through the weekend to agree on a spending bill to keep the federal government operating a fair of amount of media attention focused on an unrelated provision that would weaken the regulations imposed on banks in the wake of the 2008-09 financial crisis. Another, less noticed, amendment to the bill, however, is likely to have a more immediate effect on a much larger number of Americans.
According to NJ.com, language slipped into the federal spending bill at the last minute “suspends two rest rules for drivers” of semi-trucks. In other words, it makes it legal for trucking companies to demand more hours behind the wheel from already overstretched truck drivers.
Specifically, the website reports, “under federal law, truck drivers can be behind the wheel 11 hours a day, up to a maximum of 60 hours in a seven-day period. But if a trucker takes a 34-hour rest period, that seven-day calendar starts all over and he or she can drive another 60 hours during the next seven days.” The Hill, a magazine that tracks congress, notes that the new rule will “suspend a current requirement that truck drivers take breaks between 1 a.m. and 5 a.m. on consecutive nights before they can work again. The measure would also remove a limit on the number of times they can declare the start of a new workday.”
In other words: these rule changes will encourage companies to put their drivers on the road for longer hours and to do so during overnight hours when most people feel sleep depravation more acutely and when driving is, by its very nature, more dangerous. The measure’s sponsor, Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), claims she is doing commuters a favor by, in effect, shifting truck traffic away from rush hour, but drivers organizations and consumer advocates worry that a little rush-hour convenience will come at the price of more deadly semi-truck accidents. Speaking to The Hill the head of the Amalgamated Transit Union called the new rules “a very dangerous move by Congress that will result in more deaths and gruesome injuries on our nation’s highways.”
As a Portland lawyer helping the victims of Oregon and Washington truck crashes I am saddened and appalled to see the trucking industry’s profits being put ahead of both public safety and the welfare of the industry’s key workers – its drivers. It is widely known that drivers are often forced to work dangerously long hours just to make ends meet. With this measure – passed without proper debate or transparency, and attached to an unrelated bill which the President had little choice but to sign – the industry is putting its bottom line ahead of everyone else’s safety.