DC appeals court denies driver hours-of-service challenge

Electronic logging device in truck cab

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration successfully defended changes to the trucking hours-of-service (HOS) regulations enacted two years ago against a challenge from safety groups and the Teamsters union alleging the changes increase crash risks and make the roads less safe.

In a petition filed in December last year, the union and the three safety groups — Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety (Advocates), Parents Against Tired Truckers, and Citizens for Reliable and Safe Highways — argued that FMCSA’s final rule issued in May 2020 that incorporated four HOS changes was “arbitrary and capricious” because it failed to address safety and driver-health effects. The groups had focused specifically on two of the four changes: the short-haul exemption and the 30-minute rest break rule.

But in a decision issued Tuesday by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, a three-judge panel ruled that while aspects of the FMCSA’s reasoning in defending the HOS provisions “leave much to be desired,” the agency “sufficiently explained and factually justified its conclusions that the new short-haul exemption and the 30-minute break requirement would not adversely affect safety, driver health or regulatory compliance.”

In siding with FMCSA’s defense of the short-haul exemption specifically, the court ruled that “while the administration’s reasoning was underwhelming in certain respects, it gets across the arbitrary and capricious line.”

Despite the safety groups’ unsuccessful challenge, Peter Kurdock, general counsel for Advocates, zeroed in on the wording of the decision.

“Three judges sitting on the United States Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit found the reasoning adopted by the [FMCSA] to eviscerate several critical provisions of the [HOS] rules for commercial motor vehicle drivers ‘leave much to be desired’ and is ‘underwhelming in certain respects’,” Kurdock said in a statement. “With thousands of lives lost and serious injuries suffered each year to truck crashes, this criticism should serve as yet another wake-up call to FMCSA to advance known solutions that will reduce the outrageous death and injury toll instead of reckless rules that will only make our roads more dangerous.”

Kurdock said the group is “contemplating next steps,” which could include filing a petition for rehearing or petition for rehearing en banc, both of which would vacate the previous judgement. The Teamsters were not immediately available to comment.

In its 43-page decision, the appeals court addressed each of the petitioners’ arguments for vacating the changes made by the FMCSA — which the agency asserted provided increased flexibility for drivers and trucking companies — and how the agency was able to defend them.

The court noted, for example, that in the view of the petitioners regarding the 30-minute rest break change, the FMCSA “failed to address the cumulative fatigue that arises when drivers work a 14-hour day with only working breaks from driving and no off-duty time to rest. The new rule, they explain, effectively increases the long-haul driver’s already long work-duty day by an additional 30 minutes.”

In response, the FMCSA argued that before the rule change, drivers could have worked a maximum of 13.5 hours in a shift — with the 30-minute break rounding out the rest of the 14 hours — and yet few were doing so.

“That suggested to the [FMCSA] that drivers are not being pushed to work every available minute, and the same would be true under the new system,” the court stated. “In short, the administration reasonably explained why the new rule was safety neutral by considering both the safety benefit of decreased pressure to drive aggressively and the prospect of maintaining a roughly equivalent number of breaks as before the rule change.”

With regard to the short-haul exemption, FMCSA “reasonably weighed competing studies on collision risk to conclude that the final rule was safety neutral, addressed driver-health impacts and appropriately relied on the self-limiting nature of short-haul operations in concluding that the new rules would not foster noncompliance.”

During oral arguments in May, Paul Cullen, representing the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, which intervened in the lawsuit in support of FMCSA, spoke primarily about parking issues and noted that a 30-minute mandated rest stop — one in which the driver needed to be off the road — could result in a 60- or 90-minute hunt for parking. The new rule reduces that need, Cullen contended.

FMCSA’s final rule, which generated over 8,000 comments, made the following revisions to the existing HOS rules:

  • Changed the short-haul exception available to certain commercial drivers by lengthening their maximum on‑duty period from 12 to 14 hours and extending the distance limit within which they may operate from 100 air miles to 150 air miles.
  • Increased flexibility for the 30-minute break rule by requiring a break after eight hours of consecutive driving and allowing the recess to be satisfied by a driver using on-duty not-driving status, rather than off-duty status.
  • Modified the sleeper-berth exception to allow drivers to split their required 10 hours off duty into two periods: an 8-2 split or a 7-3 split. Neither period counts against their 14‑hour driving window.
  • Modified the adverse driving conditions exception by extending by two hours the maximum window during which driving is permitted. 

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