Give drivers a break

Is a 73-hour truck driver work week worth the traffic fatalities it would cost?

Here's something you don't see every day — trucking companies that want to be more tightly regulated. But that's what happened last week when some of the nation's motor carriers publicly expressed their concern that the federal government is in danger of allowing truck drivers to be on the road too long.

We've said it before and we'll say it again: Driver fatigue is a leading factor in truck crashes that kill about 4,000 Americans and injure 100,000 more each year. Truck operators need time to rest and recover or else they put themselves and others on the road in danger. While drivers of large trucks are less likely to cause crashes than the average motorist, the consequences of a collision are far more deadly.

But some in the trucking industry would like to see the road hour rules relaxed, and they are attempting to change them in the classic back alley method — by attaching a rider to a spending bill. Under an amendment added to the transportation and housing appropriations bill currently pending in the Senate, the nation's 3 million commercial drivers would be able to work for 73 hours in a 7-day period instead of the current 60-hour limit.

Those extra 13 hours are no small change — under current rules, truckers can work 70 hours but only if it's spread over eight days, not seven. But don't take our word for it. One of the strongest objections we've seen voiced so far is from The Trucking Alliance, a driver safety advocacy group that is supported by major carriers like J.B. Hunt and Knight Transportation.

In a statement issued this week, the group called on Congress to retain the current restrictions on hours of service, leaving the issue in the hands of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration to be decided based on "sound science and statistical data." That seems reasonable to us. And it's consistent with pro-safety positions the organization has taken in the past — such as requiring truck speed limiters and creating a clearinghouse to screen driver applicants who have previously failed a drug test.

Maryland has a unique stake in this debate. Sen. Barbara Mikulski is the top Democrat on the Senate budget committee and has an opportunity to use her influence to uphold the existing federal rules. We would urge her to do so. It should be up to the regulatory agency to set trucker hours based on a careful analysis of research and data — along with appropriate input from the industry, the public and safety advocates — not lobbyists making backroom deals in Congress.

Just last month, state officials revealed that Maryland's traffic fatality count took a turn for the worse in 2015 with roadway deaths up 17 percent, or 77 more than in 2014. Nationally, traffic deaths increased about 8 percent over the same period, a trend that members of Congress should find deeply troubling. Is this the moment to be loosening the rules governing large trucks and how they operate?

It's not just the lives of truck drivers that are in danger when they get too tired to drive. About two-thirds of those killed in crashes involving large trucks are the occupants of other vehicles. That's the risk when an 80,000-pound vehicle slams into a 3,000-pound car — it doesn't usually turn out well for the car and its passengers.

This isn't the first time that Congress has intervened in the regulations governing what hours truck drivers can work — nor is it the first time appropriations bills have been used as the vehicle to make those changes. Alterations made late last year to those same regulations — specifically involving how much time truckers need to rest, called the "34-hour restart" — have been widely criticized within the trucking industry.

That makes this wrong on two counts. It's bad public policy, and these appropriations riders aren't the way for Congress to do business on this or most any other topic — it minimizes public input and maximizes opportunities for mischief by special interest groups. Does the motoring public want dangerously tired truck drivers on the road? It's a pretty safe assumption they don't, and that's why you seldom see such anti-safety proposals on stand-alone bills — they wouldn't pass if the voters knew what was going on.

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