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Federal limits on truck drivers' hours fuel controversy, lawsuit

8:43 PM, Jul 11, 2013   |    comments
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By Emily West and Chas Sisk / The Tennessean

After only two years of truck driving, Andrew Harris understands the need of regulation in his industry.

Because he is based out of Texas, stopping outside of Nashville is part of his regular routine to reach the Northeast. He doesn't think the new hours-of-service mandate for truck drivers that started July 1 will negatively affect him or his work.

"Without regulation, I feel like all of us truck drivers, including myself, would be out here running wild going after load after load, especially if you are getting paid off a load basis," Harris said. "I mean if there was no regulation, I would try to hit Nashville to Texas, drop off my load, get another load and do it again."

The trucking industry is divided over new federal requirements that place a firmer cap on the number of hours drivers can be on duty. Meant to curb the number of fatalities on highways and improve the health of fatigued drivers, the rules could limit how much money they can make and open truckers to stiff new penalties for driving too long.

With four interstate highways and up to 42,000 truck drivers passing through on 89 miles of road in Davidson County each day, there could be a major impact on Middle Tennessee. Some truck drivers are contesting the changes, and the American Trucking Associations has sued the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration to halt the changes.

"Truckers aren't against rest," said Sean McNally, the organization's spokesman. "This is guaranteeing more rest time, not guaranteeing more sleep time. Drivers were getting appropriate rest beforehand. If it wasn't broken, we shouldn't have fixed it."

The new regulations update 2003 rules that allowed interstate truckers to drive as much as 11 hours at a time but forced them to take at least two more hours off. Passions about those rules also ran high and are believed to have prompted a ricin attack on the White House.

The new measures are complicated, but they have the net effect of prohibiting drivers from being on duty more than 70 hours in a calendar week, down from 82. The regulations also set new rules for the "restart period" during which drivers are supposed to rest up from long hauls, forcing them to be away from their trucks two consecutive nights from 1 a.m. to 5 a.m.

Hefty penalties

The provisions are expected to have the most impact on long-range drivers who frequently travel at night. The federal government estimates the rules will save 19 lives a year and prevent 1,400 accidents, while reducing the incidence of health problems such as obesity, high blood pressure, diabetes and sleep apnea among drivers.

"There are the guys that need to come out of the trucks," said Sgt. Allen England, Tennessee Department of Safety commercial vehicle administrator. "Imagine if you're going on a trip for 11 hours. You will need to get out and move. There are some guys that eat and urinate going down the road. Those guys need a break. You don't want to be driving beside someone who has been going for 11 straight hours."

The regulations are backed up by hefty penalties for violations: up to $2,750 in civil fines for each time a driver breaks the rules and $11,000 for carriers that allow drivers to do so.

"They threaten you with all these tickets," said Gaylord Wethered, a driver from California. "I don't know what we are going to do."

Randy Vernon, president of Big G Express Inc. in Shelbyville, Tenn., said the rules could create difficulties. Drivers who finish a shift in the early morning could be required to stay off the road more than two days to meet the new restart period requirements, he said.

But Morgan Adams, a Chattanooga attorney who specializes in trucking law, said the rules are far from onerous.

"The federal government is still allowing them 70 hours per week," he said. "That's an insane number of hours."

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