WASHINGTON, April 24 (UPI) -- The federal government moved Thursday for the first time since before World War II to limit the hours that truck drivers can be on the road and eliminate once and for all the image of bleary-eyed truckers nodding off at the controls of a speeding 18-wheeler.
The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) announced Thursday that the first substantial change in trucker hours since 1939 would limit drivers to driving 11 hours after taking 10 consecutive hours off, and may not exceed 60 on-duty hours per seven-day week.
The Transportation Department, which oversees the administration, anticipates that the new rules will prevent more than 1,300 truck crashes related to fatigue every year, saving lives and millions of dollars in costs.
"Over the last several years, FMCSA has made great progress in reducing commercial vehicle crash fatalities, and this rule should help to continue that momentum," said Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta. "If we can lower the cost of moving freight by 1 percent, the additional benefit to the economy would be billions of dollars annually."
Trucking companies and drivers have been leery of mandated hours because of the short lead times for deliveries and the economic costs of late arrivals. The situation sometimes leads to sleepy drivers working marathon hours on the road, driving through the night when they would be better off sleeping.
The American Trucking Association said the rules were acceptable even though fatal accidents involving trucks have been on the decline despite figures released Thursday by the Transportation Department showing an increase in traffic fatalities last year from 2001.
"This is a package that our members can work with," said Bill Graves, president of the Virginia-based industry group. "We have worked hard all along for a rule that is a good mixture of common sense and sound science. It will allow us to meet the real world operational needs of the trucking industry and do so safely."
The Transportation Department said there were nearly 5,000 fatal accidents last year in which trucks were involved.
There was a more measured response from Grain City, Missouri, where the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association is based. The association called the rules a "modest" step in the right direction that failed to address the constant pressure drivers face to meet the grueling and sometimes unrealistic schedules set by shippers and trucking companies.
"After almost 65 years of working with regulatory controls that should have been declared obsolete decades ago, this is a pretty sorry excuse for a revision to address today's problems," concluded association President Jim Johnston.
(Reported by Hil Anderson in Los Angeles)