With the number of fatal accidents involving tractor-trailers on the rise, now would seem like the wrong time to consider relaxing truck safety rules in the United States. Yet that is exactly where Congress appears to be headed — and proponents are trying to accomplish this maneuver in an unusually stealthy manner.
Attached as a policy rider to the $55 billion Transportation, Housing and Urban Development fiscal 2016 appropriations bill now being considered by the full U.S. House of Representatives is a provision allowing truck drivers to work longer hours, haul larger double-trailers in every state and prevent the U.S. Department of Transportation from raising minimum insurance requirements from the current standards, which haven't been adjusted in 30 years.
The longer workweek was bad enough. Congress pulled off a similar maneuver to achieve that result last year, but the provision was set to only last 12 months. This time it would be more permanent: By reducing the number of hours truckers are forced to rest under the so-called "restart" rule, their workweek could essentially be extended from the maximum 70 hours allowed prior to this year to a maximum of 82 hours.
Putting more exhausted truck drivers on the road would seem like a disaster waiting to happen. States have yet to collect data on the safety impact of the longer hours since the change, but when the longer workweek was permitted during the George W. Bush administration, far more truck drivers self-reported feeling drowsy while behind the wheel. In 2006, about half of surveyed drivers said they'd fallen asleep while driving at least once during the previous year.
Just as disconcerting is the prospect of mandating acceptance of what's known in the industry as "Twin 33s," trucks hauling two trailers each of which is 33 feet long instead of the standard 28 feet. Such double trucks are prohibited in Maryland and more than two-thirds of states, but the provision attached to the appropriations bill would allow them in all 50.
On the impact of that maneuver, there's very little uncertainty. Longer and heavier trucks have a worse safety record than the standard single trailer truck. They are more difficult to drive, more easily buffeted by strong winds (simply because they have more surface area) and take longer to stop. Most highways aren't designed for them.
Finally, the measure prohibits the federal government from requiring trucking companies to carry insurance above the current $750,000 per incident. That may have seemed adequate in 1985 when the government last set the regulatory standard, but it was scheduled to be updated shortly — which is precisely why trucking companies have sought the freeze.
It's one thing for Congress to debate truck safety and face the reality of 4,000 people killed and 100,000 injured each year in truck-involved crashes, including a 17 percent increase in fatalities and 28 percent increase in injuries over a four-year period, but it's quite another to do so without a full-scale hearing, which is what the House has done. By lumping the measure in with the appropriations bill, its proponents sidestepped a more skeptical panel of lawmakers with expertise in transportation safety as well as public testimony from safety advocates.
For this and other reasons (including shortchanging federal transportation and housing programs), President Barack Obama has already threatened to veto the bill should it make it to his desk, and longtime safety crusader Joan Claybrook has called it the worst industry-coordinated attack on truck safety she's seen in 25 years. Many police officers, labor union officials and state transportation officials share her view. "Families will be paying with their lives and their wallets if trucking interests are successful," Ms. Claybrook said at a news conference last month.
It also seems blatantly hypocritical for a Republican-controlled Congress to force states to soften their own truck safety rules. What happened to the party of "state's rights" and leaving regulatory decisions to local government? Even in Mississippi, home of Senate Appropriations Chairman Thad Cochran, some local transportation officials have protested the move. Polls show Americans aren't much interested in relaxing truck safety rules either — perhaps because they know that in crashes involving trucks and cars, more than 95 percent of driver and passenger fatalities are borne by those in the cars. It appears that only in Congress are anti-safety measures considered worthy of sneaking onto the books.