WASHINGTON - Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and other retailers are lobbying Congress to
extend the workday for truckers to 16 hours, something labor unions and safety
advocates say would make roadways more dangerous for all drivers.
Rep. John Boozman, an Arkansas Republican whose district includes Wal-Mart's
headquarters in Bentonville, is sponsoring a bill that would allow a 16-hour
workday, as long as the trucker took an unpaid two-hour break. The proposal
is expected to be offered as an amendment in debate over a highway spending
Truckers are pushing harder than ever to make their runs within the mandated timeframe,"
Boozman said. "Optional rest breaks will reduce driver layovers and improve
both safety and efficiency."
Current rules limit drivers' workdays to 14 hours, with 11 consecutive hours
of driving allowed, union leaders and safety advocates say. That gives truckers
three hours to eat, rest or load and unload their trucks.
"Tired drivers should be able to take a rest break when they need to,
but the current hours of service rules could prevent them from doing so,"
said Robb MacKie, chairman of the Corporate Transportation Coalition. "The
members of our coalition strongly support adding flexibility to the rules to
ensure the safest possible environment for commercial drivers and the driving
Critics of the plan accuse Wal-Mart, the world's largest retailer, of trying
to fatten its profits by forcing truckers to spend more time waiting at the
loading dock without pay.
The International Brotherhood of Teamsters "hasn't gotten one complaint
from drivers saying they don't have time for a break or a meal," the union's
vice president, John Murphy, said at a news briefing Tuesday.
Joan Claybrook, president of the safety advocacy group Public Citizen, said
drivers could be starting their workday at 8 a.m. and quitting at midnight.
"This is a sweatshop-on-wheels amendment," Claybrook said. "The
last thing we need is for tired truckers to become even more fatigued and threaten
the safety of those around them on the roads."
The current rule had been struck down in federal court because it didn't take
into account truck drivers' health. In October, Congress reinstated the rule
for one year. If the Boozman proposal were adopted, it would retain the 16-hour
workday regardless of any new rule.
Nearly 5,000 people were killed in large-truck crashes in 2003, and those vehicles
were three times more likely to be involved in fatal crashes than were cars,
according to the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration.
"More than 42,000 Americans are killed each year on the nation's highways,
and in the last three years, 15,000 deaths have been truck-related," said
Rep. Mike Honda, D-Calif. "These deaths constitute a public crisis, and
the amendment will worsen this crisis."
Wal-Mart spokesman Erik Winborn said the proposal has support from the trucking
industry and other retailers.
"We support it because we feel it would actually enhance safety rather
than hurt safety," said Winborn, whose company employs about 7,000 drivers.
Wal-Mart employees were Boozman's top contributors in 2003-04, giving him $48,152
for his re-election campaign, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Wal-Mart and its employees gave $44,500 to Boozman for his earlier bid for Congress
in 2001-02, the last year corporations could give to congressional candidates.