Senate panel wants truck safety rule studied


WASHINGTON — The Senate Appropriations Committee voted Thursday to temporarily suspend a new truck safety regulation that some fear may cause more accidents than it prevents.

The rule, which limits how often truckers can drive between 1 a.m. and 5 a.m., was designed to reduce accidents caused by fatigue. The trucking industry, however, contends that it means more semis are on the road at peak daytime driving hour — posing a threat to commuters.

Sens. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., and John Boozman, R-Ark., who serve on the committee, voted in favor of the measure that would temporarily suspend the new regulation while the Department of Transportation conducts a deeper study of the rule’s impact on safety.

“I do agree the rule will, in effect, make the interstates and other highways more congested during daylight hours,” Pryor said. “So, I think it is wise to suspend it for awhile and get a more definitive study.”

Boozman did not attend Thursday’s meeting but voted “by proxy” in favor of the amendment that Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, offered to an annual spending bill for DOT.

The Arkansas Trucking Association had weighed in on the amendment urging Pryor and Boozman to support the temporary suspension.

“We are very grateful to the Senate Committee and our delegation, in particular, for taking action today,” said ATA Vice President Shannon Newton.

Current rules have frustrated its members with “decreased productivity, lower wages for drivers, dissatisfaction among their drivers and diminished customer service,” according to a letter the association sent to Pryor and Boozman.

Some Democrats opposed the amendment saying that requiring commercial truck drivers to get adequate rest is necessary given the proven dangers of sleepy driving.

Sen. Diane Feinstein, D-Calif., noted that accidents involving trucks killed almost 4,000 and injured nearly 73,000 people in 2012.

“This is a big thing,” she said.

Collins, however, argued that there is increasing concern that limiting overnight driving means more trucks will be on the road during the most congested hours.

“It’s much safer to have these trucks on the road during nighttime,” she said.

Most of the new truck safety regulations — including requirements for at least a 30-minute break during an eight-hour shift, would remain in place. Collins amendment would temporarily suspend a “restart rule” that requires truck drivers who reach a maximum of 70 hours of driving within a week to rest for 34 consecutive hours before getting behind the wheel again. The rest time must also include at least two periods from 1 a.m. to 5 a.m.

The committee voted 21-9 in favor of the amendment and approved the spending bill for the 2015 fiscal year by a 29-1 vote. Sen. Mike Johanns, R-Neb., opposed it.

The Senate bill would provide $40.3 billion to states for road and bridge construction. Those funds, however, rely on the Highway Trust Fund and Congress has yet to agree on a revenue source for the rapidly depleting fund.

The Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department last month suspended plans to begin 10 highway construction projects over uncertainty about federal matching funds.

Pryor said Thursday that he agreed with the state’s decision given the record Congress has compiled in failing to find an adequate revenue source to sustain the Highway Trust Fund.

“The state is wise to be cautious,” he said. “A number of us are working to make sure we find some way to do this but so far we haven’t gotten to consensus yet.”

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, is hoping to move a funding bill before a July 4 recess. At least a dozen options are being considered for how to sustain the Highway Trust Fund.