WASHINGTON -- Safety advocates are crying foul over yet another change to trucking safety rules that the industry is trying to slide though Congress with no hearings, no public evaluation and no scientific study.
The move comes just days after The Huffington Post revealed that large trucking industry groups have spent the last several years quietly circumventing normal legislative procedures to win safety rule concessions -- even as truck crashes have been on the rise.
Normally, transportation policy is decided by the Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation. But failing to make progress there, the trucking industry seems to have persuaded the Appropriations Committee to add its policy provisions to spending bills.
In this case, according to advocates who have been briefed about the bill, the industry wrote a provision that will place some sort of cap on truckers' work, keeping either driving or working hours to 73 per week.
Exactly what the cap -- which is about 30 hours more than most Americans work each week -- would mean is not completely clear. Representatives for Democratic and Republican leaders on the committee declined to make the language available to HuffPost, saying it will be public after the full committee considers the Transportation, Housing and Urban Development spending bill for 2017 this Thursday.
"They are writing law in a spending bill. They are completely bypassing the Commerce Committee," said Jackie Gillian, the president Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety.
Gillian says the measure appears to have been written by the American Trucking Associations, a industry lobbying group. If the move succeeds, if could permanently change rest rules for increasingly beleaguered truck drivers -- with no public input, no scientific evaluation and no discussion with regulators.
"It is like the worse of all possible worlds," Gillian said. "The idea that the ATA has come in and written into law what they want done -- I mean, can you imagine if this were the Federal Aviation Administration?"
The ATA did not say whether it wrote the new measure, though it offered comment on it and seemed to know what language it contained.
Ironically, the new provision is being dropped into a spending bill in an effort to correct confusion over another measure that was added through the appropriations committee, also without hearings or vetting.
The ATA first managed to get Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) to write legislation in 2014 to temporarily suspend rest rules that took effect in July 2013, which required drivers to get two nights of sleep and capped their working hours at 70 per week.
Collins' one-year suspension also required a study of making drivers get two nights of sleep in a row as part of their weekly mandated 34-hour break, known as a restart. But the industry was unsatisfied. It won further modifications in 2015 for this year's spending bill that made the study more complicated, and said that if the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration did not write new rules based on the study, the rules would revert to the old ones.
The problem was the language didn't clarify which older rules it was referring to, meaning regulators could be turning back to mandates from President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's administration that capped drivers' hours at 60 a week -- much more rest than under the modern system.
An ATA spokesman said the new 73-hour cap is meant to address this confusion.
"What the Senate language appears to do is retain the ability of drivers to reset their work weeks by taking an extended 34-hour off-duty period, with the recognition they are still limited to 73 hours of work (both driving and other work time) in seven calendar days," Sean McNally said in an emailed comment.
“We appreciate the recognition by the Senate THUD subcommittee that the legislative drafting error from 2016 needs to be fixed," he added.
McNally downplayed advocates' concerns about over-tried truckers.
"ATA also knows that while professional truck drivers do not work wildly inflated weekly work hours that anti-truck groups claim, we understand the Subcommittee’s sensitivity to claims a handful of drivers might abuse the restart rule to work long hours in a week," McNally said. "We look forward to working with members in both chambers and on both sides of the aisle to ensure that professional truck drivers continue to have the opportunity to get extended off-duty rest periods that reset their work week."
The issue seems to have left Democratic Senators in a difficult position. While they would prefer the 2013 rules that gave truckers two nights of sleep, they also fear they don't have the votes to block the 73-hour week.
Safety advocates told HuffPost that the ATA had tried to attach a 75-hour week to the Commerce Committee's FAA bill that passed the Senate Thursday, but the measure was blocked.
Senate staff also declined to give the safety advocates copies of the new measure's language, which would reveal specifically what the impact would be.
Gillian believed the reason is because the implications will not be good.
"They won’t release the sub-committee draft because they know what's in there, and they know safety groups will go nuts," Gillian said.
"This is their [the trucking industry's] most bold and anti-safety measure yet," she added.