WASHINGTON -- Truck driver Dana Logan tried on Wednesday to recount a crash that decapitated two fathers and two children, hoping to convince Congress to stop weakening rules that require truckers to get rest.
She couldn’t do it. A dozen years after the fatigued driver of another truck fell asleep and drove into an SUV stuck in traffic behind her rig on a Texas highway, Logan was still too devastated to finish talking about it.
She drives trucks with her husband, Tim, as a team. That June day in 2004 near Sulphur Springs, the other driver fell asleep and rammed the SUV, pushing it under the carriage of Logan’s trailer, shearing off the top half of the vehicle with its four helpless passengers inside.
Logan got as far as recalling how her husband rushed to help the other trucker.
“When Tim tried the get the injured driver out of the truck, he [the other driver] asked him, ‘Did I hit something?’ Those were his last words before he died,” Logan told reporters in a conference call aimed at legislation moving in Congress this week.
Sobbing, Logan had to stop. She asked her husband to finish.
What the Logans and other safety advocates are worried about are measures that would allow truck drivers to work more than 80 hours a week, tacked onto to separate appropriations bills in the House and the Senate.
The Senate on Thursday passed a measure that allows 73 hours of driving and an additional 8.5 hours on related work each week as part of a massive spending measure that will fund transportation, housing and military construction projects, as well as the Veterans Administration. Funding for Zika prevention was also added to that bill, making it very likely to pass.
In the House, measures were added to the transportation and housing appropriations bill under consideration in the committee that set similar rest rules, reverting to regulations originally set in the Bush administration that were repeatedly challenged and thrown out in lawsuits.
Both bills would prevent the Obama administration from enforcing a regulation that briefly went into effect in 2013 that effectively capped truck drivers’ working hours at 70 a week, and ensured they could have two nights off in a row. That rule was blocked by a rider in a 2014 spending bill, which had to pass to avert a government shutdown.
The newly inserted policy provisions represent a trend over the last three years of the trucking industry using must-pass spending bills to win regulatory concessions that are opposed by most safety advocates and likely could not pass as normal stand-alone bills. In this case, not only do the bills fund major parts of the government, they provide cash to fight Zika.
“There’s not been any congressional hearings on any of these proposals,” said Jackie Gillian, the president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety. “The trucking industry doesn’t want to have hearings, they don’t want to hear from truck drivers like Dana Logan. They don’t want to hear from victims.
“They know that if they do have testimony and they have the experts up there, the people affected, that they would see how illogical and insane these proposals are,” Gillian said.
Those trucking interests see the complaints of safety advocates as illogical.
On the rest requirements, known as hours-of-service rules, the industry believes advocates are inventing problems.
“There’s this claim by these anti-truck groups that drivers are abusing it. There’s no data showing that,” said Dave Osiecki, who is in charge of public advocacy at the American Trucking Associations.
Osiecki argued that it’s nearly impossible for drivers to string together their hours to hit the 80-plus hour maximums that are theoretically allowed under the rules that the trucking provisions in both spending bills would preserve. “We just don’t see a need for it,” he said of the tougher Obama administration standard with two nights off.
The ATA maintains that the Obama rules don't improve safety, and even worsen it, while the older rules, with one night off, do improve safety.
Nevertheless, police who enforce the highway safety laws do think there is a connection between getting more sleep and safety.
One is Illinois Trooper Douglas Balder. Balder was nearly burned alive when a truck driver completely ignored the rules, and drove into the back of Balder’s patrol car. Balder, also a military veteran, spent months in rehab to get back on the beat. He doesn’t want Congress rolling back safety rules, and joined Wednesday's conference call to say so.
“I continue to take to the road every day to do my part to protect the people and ensure the law is upheld,” Balder said. “I cannot do my job alone. I urge Congress to take necessary action to ensure our safety, not to put us further at risk.”
The White House has threatened to veto the Senate spending bill, in part because of the rest rule rollback. But the prospect of a veto is less likely with the Zika measure attached.
Three senators, Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Ed Markey (D-Mass.) had hoped to offer an amendment in debate Thursday to restore the Obama rest regulations, but they were not given a chance amid the back-and-forth around Zika and other pressing matters surrounding the larger legislation. Democrats tried to remove Zika funding from the bill on Wednesday, but were blocked.
Blumenthal took to the floor briefly to complain about being shut out.
“We need to make truck drivers, in effect, more safely empowered on the roads to take steps to protect themselves,” Blumenthal said. “Drivers who spend too much time behind the wheel are tired. They can’t drive as safely.”
This article was updated after publication to include news of the Senate bill's passage, reference a study that supports the American Trucking Associations' position, and include a quote from Sen. Richard Blumenthal.