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Opinion >  Column

Getting There: Feds end Washington truckers’ more generous rest rules, arguing they’re actually unsafe

In this Aug. 24, 2016, file photo, truck and automobile traffic mix on Interstate 5 near Tacoma, Washington. Federal authorities on Tuesday issued a ruling that state regulations on breaks for long-haul drivers do not preempt federal standards, which require fewer work stoppages during a work day.   (Ted S. Warren)
In this Aug. 24, 2016, file photo, truck and automobile traffic mix on Interstate 5 near Tacoma, Washington. Federal authorities on Tuesday issued a ruling that state regulations on breaks for long-haul drivers do not preempt federal standards, which require fewer work stoppages during a work day.  (Ted S. Warren)

They may have some elements in common – the highway unspooling ahead, the radio signal shifting in and out of reception – but driving truck back and forth across state lines is no easygoing and aimless road trip.

There are strict rules about how long you can sit behind the wheel of a big rig, how many days in a row you can do so and how much rest you must take.

And until Tuesday, those rules were different in Washington than they were in much of the rest of the U.S.

Until Tuesday, the employees of Washington trucking companies were entitled to a half-hour meal break after five hours on the job, plus a 10-minute rest break for every four hours of work. It also meant a second 30-minute meal period for those who worked three hours of overtime.

But that has changed, after the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration granted a petition from the Washington Trucking Associations that asked for federal regulations to preempt the state’s rules.

That means truckers hauling freight across state lines for Washington-based carriers are now required to take a 30-minute break from driving, though not necessarily from working, if they want to continue heading down the road after doing so for eight hours.

And if they want to continue, they can then stay behind the wheel for another three hours without another mandated break, before reaching a maximum of 11 hours of driving per day, all within a 14-hour window.

Sheri Call, executive vice president of the Washington Trucking Associations, said the news that drivers no longer have to take the additional breaks came as a kind of relief to her members.

“It gives us hope for now that our Washington-based carriers can enjoy a bit of regulatory unburdening,” Call said.

The federal agency’s decision couldn’t have been as well received by Gov. Jay Inslee and Attorney General Bob Ferguson, who were among those who argued against the proposed changes.

“Washington enacted our meal-and-rest break standards to provide increased safety protections to all drivers,” Inslee and Ferguson wrote in a letter submitted to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration last year. “Evidence clearly shows a decrease in driving performance with longer hours of continuous driving. By ensuring workers can take a rest break after every four hours worked and a meal break within the first five hours of their shift, Washington’s rules are a critical tool to prevent drivers from reaching the levels of fatigue that could result in significant increased risk of accidents on our roadways – helping to reduce crashes, near crashes, near misses, unintentional lane deviations, and other crash-relevant conflicts.”

They also argued the state’s existing rules “are complementary to – not more stringent than” – the federal rules and that they “do not cause an unreasonable burden on the flow of interstate goods.”

Those are important points, because, as the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s ruling points out, federal rules can preempt state rules governing commercial motor vehicle safety if they met three criteria: the state rules “have no safety benefit,” they “are incompatible with Federal regulations” or they “would cause an unreasonable burden on interstate commerce.”

Tuesday’s decision argued the petition adhered to all three.

Regarding safety, James W. Deck, the deputy administrator who penned the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s decision, argued that it is actually less safe for drivers to take breaks, because, “given the current shortage of available parking for (commercial motor vehicles), the required additional breaks adversely impacted safety because they exacerbated the problem of CMVs parking at unsafe locations.”

The dangers of break-taking drivers parking dangerously was one the trucking association brought up in its original petition, where it argued that Washington’s MRB rules undermine safety “by artificially exacerbating the shortage of safe truck parking” and making it “more likely that drivers will have to spend additional time looking for parking when they need rest, or resort to unsafe places to park.”

The International Brotherhood of Teamsters pushed back on that idea in documents filed as part of the federal decision-making process.

“The fact that there may be a shortage of truck parking does not excuse a motor carrier or driver from complying with either federal or state laws,” the union wrote. “Meal and rest break protections should not be thrown out for every driver in Washington state because a small segment of WTAs members claim they have issues with truck parking.”

The Teamsters also argued that Washington’s break rules “ensure drivers have alternative legal protections in place helping to guard them against predatory companies who would rather pressure drivers into not taking a break, even when the driver feels it is physically necessary to do so.”

As for the other criteria for overruling the state’s rules, the divide between the opposing sides was similarly stark, with defenders of the status quo arguing nothing is broken in Washington’s thriving trucking industry and so nothing needs to be fixed.

“Even from an economic perspective, there is no valid rationale for undermining these longstanding protections,” wrote Inslee and Ferguson. “During the four decades that our meal-and-rest-break provision has been in place, Washington’s transportation industry has thrived. In 2018, Washington was home to more than 183,000 active commercial drivers and the industry experienced 2.5 percent growth, boasting the third largest jobs growth of any industry in our state.”

Washington Trucking Associations’ petition, however, contended the state’s rules decrease each driver’s available duty hours “by requiring additional off-duty time, and additional ‘dead time’ associated with extra trips off the highway to find places to take breaks that do not coincide with otherwise scheduled stops.” The group also argued the break placed “administrative burdens” on trucking companies.

The bottom line, Call said in an interview last week, the state’s meal- and rest-break regulations posed a high cost with no benefit.

“There’s no proven basis that Washington meal and rest breaks are safer for commercial truckers,” she said. “It’s really about preserving federal preemption and maintaining a level playing field for Washington carriers.”

But the relief Call and other freight companies are likely feeling as a result of the recent ruling may be shortlived.

The news site Freight Waves reported this month that Joe Biden’s victory in the presidential election has given the Teamsters hope they may be able to reverse a 2018 ruling that, much like Tuesday’s, allowed federal rules to preempt California’s more generous meal- and rest-break rules.

The Teamsters has been in the process of appealing that decision, and the union filed a motion after the election arguing the Biden administration should be given “a reasonable amount of time to either make another determination or weigh in as to its position in this case.”

Asked whether the union will take a similar approach in Washington, a Teamsters spokesperson said, “All of our options are under consideration and we will be making a decision in the near future.”

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