I-78 deaths fuel debate over truckers' rest time


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When a South Carolina truck driver slammed his rig into Tricia Achey's Mitsubishi along Interstate 78 last weekend, killing her and her 13-year-old daughter, he plowed directly into a long-running debate over how many hours truckers can drive without rest.

R.E. Gallman, a 46-year-old trucker with no major violations on his driving record, apparently fell sleep as he sped toward vehicles slowing for construction in Upper Saucon Township. Eleven people were injured in the crash, including a New Jersey woman who died Monday. State police haven't said how long Gallman had been driving that day, but they have said he was tired and behind the wheel of a tractor-trailer loaded with frozen poultry. Gallman has not been charged in the accident.

Many truckers and activists say federal regulations that went into effect in the past four years with the goal of reducing trucking accidents have made matters worse.

''It's hard to be legal and get rest,'' said Steve Lockhart, a Texas trucker who drives refrigerated rigs.

How long truckers can drive, how long they can rest and how they should log their down time have fueled debate among safety advocates, drivers and trucking companies as the federal government has tackled new rules for the industry. Advocates have twice sued to block the new regulations. A federal court ruling on a 2006 lawsuit is pending.

For more than 60 years, truckers were guided by rules that prohibited them from driving more than 10 hours without eight hours of breaks, and banned them from driving more than 60 hours in a seven-day cycle. To enforce the rules, drivers were required to keep logs of when they drove and when they rested.

But with 5,000 people killed annually in trucking accidents, Congress in the late 1990s created the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration to oversee the industry. Its mandate: Reduce the annual number of traffic fatalities involving large trucks and buses.

New rules, new criticisms

What emerged was a new set of rules that has safety advocates up in arms. They claim the agency has caved to the interests of the trucking industry and to the deregulation push of the Bush administration, to the detriment of public safety.

''What you had basically were obsolete, ineffective rules replaced by rules which would allow even more fatigued driving,'' said David Snyder, vice president and general counsel of the American Insurance Association.

Instead of the old 10-hour driving limit, truckers can now stay behind the wheel for 11 hours consecutively. But they must rest for 10 hours before driving again, two hours longer than under the old rule. Also, truckers can now drive 77 hours in a seven-day period. Although the law has shortened the number of hours truckers can work in a day from 15 to 14, it's made those hours continuous.

''Previously it was a 15 hour clock, but then you could break it down and spend two or three hours off-duty,'' said Dean Riland, safety director for the Pennsylvania Motor Truck Association in Camp Hill, Cumberland County. ''Truckers could relax, eat lunch or talk to a buddy and that hour didn't count toward on-duty time.''

It's all on the clock

That's no longer the case. Rest breaks and meals, as well as waiting for loading and unloading are all considered on-duty activities and count toward the 14-hour shift.

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