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Buttigieg’s DOT rejects hours-of-service court challenge claims

Safety groups give no basis for setting aside revisions aimed at giving drivers more flexibility, administration asserts

HOS lawsuit does not prove heightened crash risk, FMCSA asserts. (Photo: Jim Allen/FreightWaves).

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration has rejected assertions that hours-of-service revisions made in September 2020 will lead to more crashes despite claims made by safety advocates and labor.

Responding to a petition filed by the groups in December with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, FMCSA and the U.S. Department of Transportation argued that the petitioners’ anti-safety claims lack standing and should be rejected.

“Even if petitioners had established standing to challenge the final rule, FMCSA’s exercise of its expertise and discretion to modify existing hours-of-service rules was appropriate and reasonable, and the petition for review should be denied,” the government stated in its reply brief filed late Tuesday.

When questioned by lawmakers in early 2021 about his views on Trump-era trucking regulations affecting driver work rules, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg left open the possibility of revisiting those regulations to reassess the balance in the trucking industry between safety and increased productivity.

But the administration left no doubt where it stands on the hours-of-service changes, specifically the two provisions being challenged by Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety (and affiliated safety groups) and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters: the short-haul exception and 30-minute rest break.

“FMCSA reasonably explained its conclusion that the modifications to the prerequisites for the short-haul exception promote greater flexibility without compromising driver health or safety,” the administration stated.

“The agency bolstered its safety determination by comparing crash data from before and after a similar change was made for a specific class of truck drivers. In response to this sound decision-making, petitioners raise studies that the agency already considered and addressed and fail to grapple with the limited nature of the modifications adopted by FMCSA.”

FMCSA said it also properly justified modifications to the 30-minute break requirement, noting that change does not alter the applicable driving limits and continues to require that truck drivers take a break from driving.

“Evidence supports the conclusion that it is the break from driving itself that counteracts negative effects from fatigue, and the agency did not observe an increase in crash risk after granting an exemption similar to the current rule in a related context. Petitioners’ arguments misunderstand the limited nature of the modification.”

Watch: Safety groups, Teamsters challenge hours-of-service rules (12/6/21)

The petitioners asserted in their lawsuit that the final rule issued by FMCSA in 2020 also does not adequately respond to a study showing a 383% heightened crash risk among drivers using the short-haul exception. It also does not explain why “expanding the work hours of short-haul drivers, who typically make many stops throughout the day, would not be expected to increase the incidence of occupational injuries among such drivers.”

FMCSA responded that although the study cited by the petitioners found that drivers operating in North Carolina under the short-haul exception had a 383% higher crash risk than those not using the exception and was statistically significant, a “very small sample size” meant the analysis was not strong.

The study’s authors pointed out that other factors that were not part of the study, such as the age or poor condition of the trucks, may also have led to the result, FMCSA asserted. It noted that the safety determination it made in the final rule “reflects a careful weighing of the entire evidentiary record.”

In a separate statement included in the petition, Lamont Byrd, director of the Teamsters’ safety and health department, contended that any new collective bargaining agreements that keep the original short-haul and rest-break rules in place will put the labor union’s members at a competitive disadvantage compared to independent contractors not covered by those provisions.

However, “any supposed competitive injury is self-inflicted,” FMCSA and DOT responded.

The fact that some employers might choose to continue to abide by previous limitations no longer in effect cannot be fairly traced to the final rule, they stated.

“And petitioners nowhere explain how the rule puts them or their members at a comparative disadvantage or ‘allow[s] increased competition against them,’ given that the rule does not permit drivers to drive for a longer time.”

Click for more FreightWaves articles by John Gallagher.

John Gallagher

Based in Washington, D.C., John specializes in regulation and legislation affecting all sectors of freight transportation. He has covered rail, trucking and maritime issues since 1993 for a variety of publications based in the U.S. and the U.K. John began business reporting in 1993 at Broadcasting & Cable Magazine. He graduated from Florida State University majoring in English and business.