Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Court tosses hours policy for truckers

A federal appeals court on Tuesday struck down a Bush administration rule that loosened restrictions on the work hours of truck drivers after concluding that officials had failed to adequately justify the changes.

In a unanimous decision, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia said that the federal agency that oversees the truck industry did not provide enough evidence to demonstrate the safety of its 2005 decision to increase the maximum driving hours of truck drivers. The hours of service were increased to 77 from 60 over seven consecutive days, and to 88 hours from 70 over eight days.

The court found that the agency, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, a unit of the Department of Transportation, had ignored the results of a database it commissioned of more than 50,000 truck accidents from 1991 to 2002. Using the data, the study extrapolated that the risk of fatigue-related accidents would be substantially higher in the extra hours of service allowed by the new rules.

The agency "failed to provide an adequate explanation for its decision to adopt the 11-hour daily driving limit," the court said.

The rules had been adopted after heavy lobbying by politically connected leaders of the truck industry. The changes were part of a strategy by the Bush administration to reduce regulations on businesses.

Safety experts and insurance analysts had challenged the changes. They said longer driving hours have contributed to a high number of truck accidents. About 100 people die each week in truck-related accidents, making trucking America's most treacherous industry as measured by overall deaths and injuries.

Supporters of the loosened standards say they have made it faster and cheaper to move goods across the country. They say that the changes promoted safety and that shorter hours would force more drivers with little experience behind the wheel. And they note that the fatality rate has continued a long decline.

Still, the fatality rate for truck-related accidents remains nearly double that for accidents involving only cars. And the Bush administration has repeatedly missed its own targets for reducing the number of fatalities from truck accidents.

The decision on Tuesday came in a case filed by Public Citizen, a consumer advocacy group. Safety groups hailed the ruling and said the court had confirmed their view that the agency had failed to adequately justify relaxing the rules.

The agency would not say whether it would appeal the decision or seek a stay of the court's order, which is set to go into effect in September.

The American Trucking Associations, which defended the changes to the rules in the proceeding, said they would ask the court to stay its ruling to give the agency time to provide a better justification of the changes.

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