Yawning danger

Our view : Trucking companies are unwisely given an 11th hour at the 11th hour

December 28, 2008

Last week, safety advocates petitioned the federal government to reconsider a recent decision to allow truckers to work longer hours. The new regulations deserve more than reconsideration; they ought to be completely dismissed as a regrettable four-year experiment by the Bush administration.

Truckers used to be limited to driving no more than 10 hours straight, but in 2004, the industry successfully lobbied to have them expanded on an interim basis to 11 hours.

Has the 11th hour made the roads more dangerous? Are 11th-hour drivers more likely to be involved in crashes? Some research suggests no, and that's the evidence sited by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration when it granted the rule change in November. But advocates say the government's analysis relies heavily on one study from the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute that is deeply flawed (depending, for instance, on truckers being videotaped; the presence of a camera onboard likely affected their performance).

The bulk of 35 years of research, the petitioners point out, shows that the performance of long-haul truck drivers diminishes even before the 10-hour limit is reached. And while the number of highway fatalities was down the last two years, it went up the first year the new rules were in place. Recent safety improvements to roads and vehicles as well as lower average highway speeds may be masking the effect of the longer hours.

The trucking industry supports the new rules, but a lot of truckers, including the Teamsters, oppose them. Certainly it's hard to see how forcing drivers of 80,000-pound vehicles to spend an extra hour behind the wheel is as risk-free as the trucking companies claim.

Reversing the rule won't be easy for the incoming administration. But repealing it, along with other questionable regulatory actions taken by the Bush administration during its own 11th hour, ought to be a high priority for President-elect Barack Obama.

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