WASHINGTON — For the second time in three years, the trucking industry has found a friend in Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine.
Collins got a rider attached to the spending bill approved over the weekend so truckers will no longer have to get two nights sleep in a row before starting a work week. Suspending year-old federal regulations means truckers will be allowed to work as many as 82 hours over eight days — upending what safety advocates said was a key component of a 15-year effort to reduce deaths caused by drowsy long-haul drivers.
“I am seriously concerned that this suspension will put lives at risk,” Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said last week in a letter to lawmakers urging them to drop the measure.
Collins convinced a bipartisan majority of the Senate Appropriations Committee to support the suspension in June, just days before a trucker who police said had not slept for more than 24 hours slammed his rig into a limousine carrying comedian Tracy Morgan on the New Jersey Turnpike. Morgan, a former star of NBC’s “Saturday Night Live” and “30 Rock,” was badly hurt, and fellow comedian James McNair was killed.
The bill that the measure was attached to didn’t advance. Last week, defying a last-minute push by safety advocates and Foxx, the rider ended up in the $1.1 trillion spending plan Congress passed and sent to President Barack Obama on Dec. 13 to avert a government shutdown.
“I care deeply about safety on our nation’s roads, and no one wants to see an accident caused by driver fatigue or by any other cause,” Collins said in a statement last week. But, she said, the suspended rest rules “presented some unintended and unanticipated consequences” that require further study.
In 2011, Collins shepherded a measure also supported by the trucking industry that allows bigger trucks on Maine’s interstate highways for 20 years.
This year’s legislative victory followed an intense lobbying campaign by trucking groups, who argued the Transportation Department hadn’t taken into account the consequences of its rules, like forcing more trucks onto the road during early morning rush hours because of stipulations that their weekly work breaks include at least two nights.
“Small-business truckers applaud the House and Senate for rejecting scare tactics,” said Todd Spencer, executive vice president of Grain Valley, Missouri-based Owner Operators Independent Drivers Association.
The Collins amendment suspends until Oct. 1, and orders a study of, rules the Transportation Department implemented last year. Under those rules, drivers, after working 70 hours over eight days, were required to rest for 34 hours before beginning another workweek. And that had to include two consecutive nights from 1 a.m. to 5 a.m.
Even with the Collins suspension, drivers are still limited to 14 hours of work a day, of which only 11 hours can be behind the wheel, and they must take at least one 30-minute rest break. They are still required to be off duty for 34 hours at the end of a workweek, but the 1 a.m to 5 a.m. rest periods over two consecutive days will be lifted.
That means drivers can conceivably work 82 hours a week — something the industry says is highly uncommon.
Foxx, the transportation secretary, argued that the suspended elements were the central feature of rest rules that were developed over more than a decade of work. They were based on research that showed drivers were less likely to be involved in fatal highway crashes if they got more sleep at night.
Collins lives in the rural northern part of the state, which “is big trucking country,” said Daphne Izer of Lisbon, Maine, who founded Parents Against Tired Truckers in 1994 after her son, Jeff, was killed along with three other teenagers in a truck crash. Logging firms, potato farms and wood chips travel long distances to get to market, Izer said.
“Of course she’s in with the trucking industry, she gets money from them,” Izer said. “Our families are using the highways, and we didn’t have a say in this, and we should. It’s very frustrating. This is a major step backwards.”
A spokesman for Collins said she “is committed to making our roads safer.” “Statistics from the federal Department of Transportation show that the safest time for truckers to drive is overnight,” Kevin Kelley stated. “Unfortunately, two provisions that took effect last July have presented some unintended and unanticipated consequences that may actually be making our nation’s roads less safe by forcing more trucks onto the highways during the congested, daytime hours when roads are crowded with cars and school buses, rather than at night when there is less traffic.
“Annette Sandberg, the former administrator of FMSCA, who has spent more than 22 years in public safety, concludes Sen. Collins’ provision will ‘make the roads safer,’ and that ‘suspending these two changes while keeping the remaining hours-of-service rules intact, in order to fully study the impact of shifting more truck traffic to daylight hours, is a common-sense solution to this problem.’”
Collins’ efforts won praise from the American Trucking Associations and the Maine Motor Transport Association as well as FedEx, the third-term Republican’s ninth- largest contributor in the most recent election cycle. It gave her $44,500, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a Washington-based campaign finance tracking group.
International Paper, which uses trucks to ship products from its operations in Maine, gave $36,500, according to the center. Collins received $14,500 from other trucking sources. The senator raised $6,437,119.36 overall for her successful re-election campaign this year.
The trucking industry has spent $7.48 million for lobbying in 2014, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. It’s a fraction of the $177.3 million laid out by top-spending pharmaceutical companies and $105 million from technology companies.
In 2011, Collins won a change also supported by the industry that allowed trucks weighing up to 100,000 pounds on interstate highways in Maine for 20 years. Most trucks on interstate highways are limited to 80,000 pounds. The exemption for the state was backed by some police and education groups as well as the Professional Logging Contractors of Maine, which argued it would enhance safety by getting the heavy trucks off local roads and away from downtowns. The Truck Safety Coalition opposed it, predicting it would cause more highway deaths.
“I really think this is an ideological predisposition,” said Jim Melcher, a political science professor at the University of Maine at Farmington. “She sees herself as a fixer of business problems.”
Collins included her 2011 work on the weight limits in a campaign commercial, he said.
Interstate 95 runs the length of the state, ending at the Canadian border, and, he said, “affects a lot of Maine, it’s one of the main transportation backbones.”
Maine’s location means its northernmost border is a 7 hour drive from Boston, the nearest major market. It’s 12 hours from New York.
New Jersey Sen. Corey Booker, a Democrat, said he had hoped to strip out the Collins amendment when the spending bill was on the Senate floor, but he never got the chance under the terms of the budget compromise struck last week.
“These drivers who drive trucks are hardworking men and women, and they have, unfortunately, been pushed to tread on the limits of human endurance,” Booker said on the Senate floor. “We are in no position to be crippling existing safety measures designed to keep our roads safe.”
Truck crashes caused 3,912 deaths in 2012, and the fatal- crash rate increased each year from 2009 through 2012, reversing a five-year trend, according to federal data. The hours-of-service regulation was expected to prevent 1,400 truck crashes a year, saving 19 lives and avoiding 560 injuries.
Groups including Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, Parents Against Tired Truckers, Citizens for Reliable and Safe Highways and the Truck Safety Coalition mounted opposition to the Collins amendment. The Teamsters union also opposed it.
Foxx, in his letter to lawmakers, wrote: “The evidence clearly shows that truck drivers are better rested and more alert after two nights of sleep than one night, and that unending 80-hour work weeks lead to driver fatigue and compromise highway safety.”
The six-vehicle June accident that injured the two comedians involved a Wal-Mart Stores tractor-trailer driven by a man nearing the end of a 14-hour shift who hadn’t slept for more than 24 hours, according to police. Trucker Kevin Roper of Jonesboro, Georgia, pleaded not guilty to charges of vehicular homicide and assault by auto.
Wal-Mart, which has apologized for the accident, said at the time that “it is our belief that Mr. Roper was operating within the federal hours-of-service regulations.”