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Trump administration waives Obama-era regulation meant to reduce deadly crashes by exhausted truck drivers

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Sarah Okeson
Sarah Okeson

Jim Mullen, a former trucking company executive and lobbyist, is using the Trump pandemic that is killing thousands of people in our nation to ease safety rules intended to reduce the number of people killed by trucks.

Mullen, acting administrator of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, temporarily waived a rule requiring many drivers of large commercial trucks to take 10-hour breaks after 14 hours of work if those truckers are delivering supplies such as medical supplies, food and fuel.

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Peter Kurduck, the general counsel for Advocates for Highway & Auto Safety, said the organization understands that during the pandemic there is a need for waiving the rule with limited exemptions.

Under Obama, federal regulators limited many truckers’ work to 70 hours in eight days to try to reduce crashes by exhausted drivers.

The rate of fatal large truck crashes is increasing. From 2016 to 2017, the most recent numbers, the rate increased by 6%. In 2017, 4,761 people were killed in crashes involving trucks that weigh more than 10,000 pounds.

Some of the horrific crashes have involved Werner Enterprises, the Omaha, Neb., trucking company where Mullen was the executive vice president and general counsel. In February 2017, Kathryn Armijo, 54, was killed near Las Cruces, N.M., after a student driver in his eighth day of driving for Werner crossed four lanes of traffic and a median before hitting her SUV. A jury ordered Werner Enterprises to pay about $40.5 million in damages, but the case was later settled.

‘People Die’

A 2017 crash near Jerome, Mo.

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In 2014, 7-year-old Zack Blake was killed and his 12-year-old sister was left a quadriplegic in an accident on Interstate 20 in Odessa, Texas during freezing rain when the driver of the pickup truck the children were in lost control and hit a Werner truck. The commercial driver’s license manual instructs drivers of 18-wheelers to slow to a crawl and get off the road in icy conditions. A jury awarded almost $90 million in damages for that crash. Werner is appealing the verdict.

“People die when some truck drivers work too hard,” said John Seidl, a transportation consultant.

Called Rule ‘Overreach’

In 2015, Mullen told senators the Obama trucking regulations were “government overreach of the worst kind.” The safety administration under Mullen has proposed changing those rules, but the final rule hasn’t been released yet.

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“The FMCSA is abandoning safety and allowing drivers to push themselves to the limit even further,” said Teamsters general president James P. Hoffa.

Members of American Trucking Associations, the largest trade association for the trucking industry, were at a Trump rally in Harrisburg, Pa., in 2017 to promote Trump’s tax plan.

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Trump Supporter

Derek Leathers, the president and CEO of Werner Enterprises, joined Trump at a Rose Garden ceremony in 2018 to celebrate the Trump tax plan being passed. Leathers said the tax cut helped Werner Enterprises raise driver pay by an average of $2,400.

Truck driver salaries have dropped by as much as 50% since 1980 when the trucking industry was deregulated under President Jimmy Carter. Andrew, a truck driver, said it is difficult to earn a living now driving trucks and supported Mullen lifting the hours truckers can work during the pandemic.

Chris Spear, the president and CEO of American Trucking Associations, criticized the $89.7 million Texas verdict. About $43 million of the award was for the medical care of the 12-year-old girl, Brianna.

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“It’s time to go on the offensive and tell our story to the policymakers,” Spear said in October. “It’s time to take the Hill.”

Days later, Ray Martinez, the Senate-confirmed head of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, announced he was leaving the job. Mullen as the acting administrator does not need to be confirmed by the Senate.

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