January 18, 2022

Truck safety regulations frozen for the winter

The federal government has not impressed me over the years with its mercy toward the casualties of a northern winter.

The IRS, for instance, shows singularly little interest in whether my pipes have frozen or my car has seized up. There is no provision for adjusting my tax rate if my furnace gives up its unending struggle.

So I was surprised to hear that the Federal Highway Administration had declared a “regional emergency” and suspended many of its truck safety regulations for the months of January and February.

As the cold weather set in, demand for heating oil and propane shot up. Industry lobbyists warned that shortages could occur if truck drivers had to stop after their allotted 10 hours a day. Nobody wanted to see people freezing in their homes.

So, on Jan. 12, the regional director of the Office of Motor Carriers in Albany, N.Y., suspended the rule limiting the number of hours a trucker may drive, along with a handful of other regulations. The suspension applied to oil and propane trucks in New England, New York and New Jersey.

On Feb. 3, the same bureaucrat extended the emergency. This time around, the only rule suspended was the limit on hours a trucker may drive, but the suspension covered all “products necessary to sustain human life or maintain the public welfare,” which, in practice, covers everything from beef jerky to paper clips.

The Maine Bureau of the State Police, which has jurisdiction over Maine roads other than the interstates, followed suit, suspending its own rules for the number of hours a trucker may drive in a day and in a week.

Easy as that. No messy public discussion. A lot of overtime, nobody frozen.

In fact, nobody outside government and the trucking industry ever would have blinked an eye, if it were not for an ugly coincidence of timing.

Last month, Maine Attorney General Michael Carpenter decided to reopen the investigation into an accident in Falmouth last October. In that case, a tractor-trailer plowed over a car stopped in the breakdown lane of the Maine Turnpike, killing four teen-agers.

State police determined that the truck driver had “nodded off” at the time of the accident.

The truck driver has already been charged with falsifying his logbook, the document on which truckers record their hours. The parents of the dead teen-agers maintain that if the accident occurred because the driver “nodded off,” he should be charged with manslaughter.

The motor carrier safety regulations were in place then, of course, and did not prevent the accident. But the gruesome collision does set one to wondering about the wisdom of letting truckers — or asking them to — put in overtime behind the wheel. If nothing else, it serves to remind us of why the federal government felt it had to regulate truckers’ hours in the first place.

The timing of the “regional emergency” is odd for one other reason. The cold weather that makes all that overtime necessary brings snow and ice that make driving tricky.

In other words, at the very time you were praying that your fellow drivers were alert, the federal and state governments were telling truckers they could drive as long as they wished.

Fortunately, most truckers and their employers have used some common sense.

“We’re cautious to start with. When the weather is bad, we’re doubly cautious,” said Jim Mullen, president of Webber Oil Co. “We didn’t have to push it to the edge.”

Mullen said that some of Webber’s long-haul drivers have worked five or six 10-hour days in a row, instead of the usual four. Six 10-hour days, however, would still fall under the federal rules.

Mullen said that the suspension of the rules gave the company some flexibility when demand rose. But most Maine companies, he added, are prepared for bad weather; he did not know of any shortages that would have occurred if the rules had remained in place.

Steve McCausland, the spokesman for the state police, reminded me that even if it reaches 50 degrees today, it was only a few weeks ago that the Maine Turnpike was strewn with broken-down, frozen-up trucks.

“If there were people out there who didn’t get fuel oil, I suppose we’d be talking to you about that,” he said. “This is an issue in which we would be damned if we did, damned if we didn’t.”

True enough. We live and die by our roads, and that does not leave us many choices.

Apparently in winter, our choice is this: We can risk running out of heating oil and other necessities, or we can risk running into trucks whose drivers have been going for longer than the government figures is safe. On icy roads.

Maybe the risks are low, but the stakes are high — high enough for me to wonder how long it would take to bring back the railroads.

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