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Published: 7/17/2004

Court sets aside new driver rules

BY DAVID PATCH
BLADE STAFF WRITER

A federal appeals court yesterday set aside new rules governing truck drivers' working hours, finding that the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration did not adequately consider their impact on truck drivers' health.

The three-judge panel on the District of Columbia Circuit Court of Appeals said the lawsuit brought by the nonprofit Public Citizen consumer activist group and others raised additional "troubling concerns about the decision-making process," but it ruled only that the petitioners' claim the failure to consider health effects made the hours-of-service rules arbitrary and capricious.

That failure, by itself, warranted voiding the entire rule, the court said.

The ruling "means back to the drawing board" for the government, said Bonnie Robin-Vergeer, an attorney for Public Citizen. "We got what we asked for."

For the time being, however, the rules that say how long truckers may drive and how long they must rest between shifts will remain in effect as they are. The federal motor carrier ad-

ministration has announced on its Web site that it has 45 days to decide whether it will appeal the decision.

With three major north-south interstates intersecting here - I-75 and I-80/90, and the heavily reliant steel and automotive industries located in the region - Toledo is a trucking industry hub.

Ed Nagle, the president of a Lake Township-based trucking firm that bears his name, said the main effect his company had seen from the new rules was that customers were loading and unloading trucks faster because drivers could no longer deduct time waiting at the loading dock from their on-duty hours.

For nine out of 10 shippers, "this has reduced our waiting time at the docks," agreed Keith Tuttle, president of Motor Carrier Service in Northwood.

But Dennis House, a local independent truck driver, said yesterday he would be happy to go back to the old rules.

"It's easier to keep your log books" with the old system, Mr. House said while fueling his rig at the Pilot Travel Center off the Ohio Turnpike in Lake Township. With the new rules, "you get an extra hour to drive, but they make you sit two hours longer" between shifts, he said.

Mr. House and several other drivers interviewed yesterday said they have seen little improvement at loading docks, where they often must wait for hours without compensation.

The regulations that took effect in January had been the first major revision to commercial truck driving and rest rules in more than 60 years.

They increased a driver's allowable time behind the wheel from 10 hours per shift to 11, but extended the rest period between shifts from eight hours to 10. The new rules also shortened the total workday during which a trucker could drive from 15 hours to 14, and no longer allowed drivers to deduct meal breaks or loading-dock waiting from their on-duty time.

The motor carrier administration estimated that compared with the old regulations, the new ones would reduce annual fatigue-related trucker deaths from 440 to 335.

But in its ruling, the court found that the motor carrier administration's published deliberations about the hours-of-service regulations gave no evidence of compliance with a congressional mandate that such rules ensure that "the operation of commercial motor vehicles does not have a deleterious effect on the physical condition of the operators."

According to the court's ruling, the agency stated that the law "does not require the agency to protect driver health to the exclusion of all other considerations such as the cost and benefit of the proposed regulation." But the court found that the agency gave no consideration to driver health.

Public Citizen and the other plaintiffs also had objected to the driving-time increase; to a provision allowing drivers to split their 10 hours' rest into two pieces in their rigs' sleeper berths; and to the motor carrier administration's decision to retain paper log books for tracking drivers' hours instead of requiring electronic monitoring.

While declining to pass judgment on any of those complaints, the court described the agency's explanations for adopting those rules variously as "troubling," "dubious," and "questionable."

Truckers at the Pilot Travel Center said the longer rest breaks provide no real benefit.

"Nobody's going to stop and sleep for 10 hours," said Jim Gravell of Hamburg, N.Y., who was headed home after a week on the road.

"Fatigue-wise, I'm worse off than I've ever been," said John Mink of Nitro, W.Va., on a run from Paw Paw, Mich., to Wilton, N.Y. "Now I have to spend all this time waiting around. I want to get done and go home."

The Blade's wire services contributed to this report.

Contact David Patch at:

dpatch@theblade.com

or 419-724-6094.



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