Washington, D.C. – Safety advocates have filed a lawsuit protesting the recently-announced U.S. federal rules governing long-haul truck driver hours.

The suit was filed by Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, Public Citizen, the Truck Safety Coalition, and two truck drivers, who said that the federal rule for truck driver hours of service (HOS) still fails to made needed improvements to protect the public from tired truckers, and should be subjected to judicial review.

The ruling, by the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA), revised the HOS safety requirements for commercial truck drivers last December. The final rule reduces the maximum number of hours a truck driver can work within a week by 12 hours, limiting a driver’s work week to 70 hours from 82 hours within seven days. Truck drivers also cannot drive after working eight hours without first taking a break of at least 30 minutes any time during that period.

However, the final rule retained the previous 11-hour daily driving limit, and FMCSA said it would “continue to conduct data analysis and research to further examine any risks associated with the 11 hours of driving time.” It also includes a “34-hour restart” provision, which requires truck drivers who maximize their weekly work hours to take at least two nights’ rest, allowing drivers to restart the clock on their work week by taking at least 34 consecutive hours off-duty. The final rule allows drivers to use the restart provision only once during a seven-day period.

“Given the FMCSA’s mission to prevent truck-related deaths and injuries, it is appalling that the agency issued yet another rule that fails to adequately address truck driver fatigue and puts the public’s safety at risk,” said Henry Jasny, vice-president and general counsel of the Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety.

In the lawsuit, the parties seek judicial review of the final HOS rule, which failed to reduce the 11-hour limit on consecutive driving to 10 hours, despite the agency’s statement in the proposed rule that “the 10-hour rule is currently FMCSA’s currently-preferred option” because it would be most effective in reducing driver fatigue. The groups say that the FMCSA stood by the 11-hour rule even though it had no data to support its adoption of the longer limit when it was introduced in 2004.

The groups also say that the final rule also fails to eliminate the 34-hour restart provision, which they said encourages cumulative fatigue and allows drivers to exceed weekly driving and work limits. The restart provision was instituted in 2004 without any supporting data or research, the groups said, and reduces the off-duty time drivers are allowed from 48 or more hours to just 34 hours off-duty, after driving up to 70 hours and working more than 80 hours over eight days.

Driver surveys sponsored by the agency show that under the current HOS rule, 65 per cent of truck drivers acknowledged that they drive while tired, and 48 per cent admitted to falling asleep behind the wheel in the previous year.

The groups say that the new FMCSA rule also includes a loophole that allows truck drivers to sit in their vehicle cabs during their ten-hour off-duty rest period instead of sleeping, which will lead to increased rates of driver fatigue among long-haul drivers who do not have sleeper berths in their trucks.

In 2004 and 2007, the Court of Appeals unanimously ruled in favour of safety organizations that challenged the HOS rule. In the first case, the court found that the agency’s decisions to drive for more hours was at odds with its research that showed increased driving hours resulted in higher levels of driver fatigue in each shift and cumulatively each week.

“Despite the fact that truck crash fatalities increased by nearly 9 per cent in 2010, and more than 100,000 people were injured, at a cost to society of nearly $42 billion, the FMCSA Administrator has chosen to imperil public safety by keeping unsafe and illegal driving limits for truck drivers,” said Joan Claybrook, chair of the Board of Citizens for Reliable and Safe Highways. The groups bringing the lawsuits forward say that industry pressure is responsible for keeping the longer hours intact.