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Public Citizen v. Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration

July 16, 2004


On Petition for Review of an Order of the United States Department of Transportation

Before: Edwards, Sentelle and Tatel, Circuit Judges.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Sentelle, Circuit Judge

Argued April 13, 2004

Public Citizen and other "public interest" groups (collectively "Public Citizen" or "petitioners") seek review of a final rule of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration ("FMCSA" or "the agency") revising existing hours of service ("HOS") regulations limiting the hours of driving and work of commercial motor vehicle operators. For the reasons more fully set out below, we agree with petitioners that the rulemaking was arbitrary and capricious, because the FMCSA failed to take account of a statutory limit on its authority. We therefore grant the petition for review and vacate the rule.


A. Regulatory Background

For years, federal regulators have limited the hours of service that truckers, as well as other operators of various vehicles in the transportation industry, can work and operate their motorized conveyances. The FMCSA, created by statute in 1999, is the agency charged with promulgating HOS rules regulating drivers of commercial motor vehicles. When Congress created the FMCSA, it provided as follows:

In carrying out its duties, the [FMCSA] shall consider the assignment and maintenance of safety as its highest priority, recognizing the clear intent, encouragement, and dedication of Congress to the furtherance of the highest degree of safety in motor carrier transportation.

42 U.S.C. § 113. Before Congress created the FMCSA, the Federal Highway Administration ("FHA") was responsible for such rules.

In 1995, Congress ordered the FHA to revise the existing commercial motor vehicle HOS rules. Specifically, it provided that the FHA shall issue an advance notice of proposed rulemaking dealing with a variety of fatigue-related issues pertaining to commercial motor vehicle safety (including 8 hours of continuous sleep after 10 hours of driving, loading, and unloading operations, automated and tamper-proof recording devices, rest and recovery cycles, fatigue and stress in longer combination vehicles, fitness for duty, and other appropriate regulatory and enforcement countermeasures for reducing fatigue-related incidents and increasing driver alertness).

49 U.S.C. § 31136 note. The FHA never issued the required notice of rulemaking, and so it fell to the FMCSA to do the job.

In May 2000, the FMCSA, in a formal notice published in the Federal Register, proposed a new set of commercial motor vehicle HOS rules. 65 Fed. Reg. 25,540 (2000) ("NPR"). Though the rules regulate all cargo-carrying commercial motor vehicles, the petition before us addresses the impact of the rule on long-haul truck drivers. The FMCSA promulgated those rules pursuant to, among other statutes, 49 U.S.C. § 31136 and § 31506, which are part of the Motor Carrier Act of 1935 and the Motor Carrier Safety Act of 1984. Section 31136 provides, in relevant part:

(a) Minimum safety standards ... At a minimum, the [HOS] regulations shall ensure that --

(1) commercial motor vehicles are maintained, equipped, loaded, and operated safely;

(2) the responsibilities imposed on operators of commercial motor vehicles do not impair their ability to operate the vehicles safely;

(3) the physical condition of operators of commercial motor vehicles is adequate to enable them to operate the vehicles safely; and

(4) the operation of commercial motor vehicles does not have a deleterious effect on the physical condition of the operators.

Section 31506(d) provides:

Before prescribing or revising any [HOS] requirement, [the FMCSA] shall consider the costs and benefits of the requirement.

The NPR proposed to revise the existing HOS commercial motor vehicle regulations, which had been in place (with some revisions) since 1962. The old rules had placed limits on the number of hours truckers could drive daily without off-duty time, and the number of hours truckers could work weekly during seven or eight consecutive days and still drive, with some exceptions not relevant here. See 49 C.F.R. § 395.3 (2002) (superseded). These were limits on the time drivers could work and still drive; so far as the rules went, drivers who worked more than the daily or weekly limits could still work as long as they did not drive. The daily limits prohibited truckers from driving more than ten hours without taking eight hours of off-duty time or from driving after fifteen hours "on duty" without taking eight hours of off-duty time. Id. § 395.3(a)(1), (2). Drivers, however, could take periodic "off-duty" breaks during the day, thus extending the fifteenhour driving-eligible "on duty" period beyond fifteen hours. The rules also permitted drivers to obtain the necessary eight nominally "consecutive" hours' sleep by resting in a "sleeper berth," an enclosed compartment in the cargo space of a truck with space for drivers to sleep. Drivers could obtain their rest in sleeper berths in two separate periods totaling eight hours, each of which was at least two hours long. Id. § 395.1(g). That meant that a long-haul truck driver could satisfy regulatory requirements, for example, by driving six hours, resting for five in his attached sleeper-berth, driving another four, and resting another three hours. (The parties refer to this feature of the old rules as the "sleeper-berth exception.") The weekly driving limits prohibited driving after having been on duty for sixty hours in seven consecutive days, or seventy hours in eight consecutive days. Id. § 395.3(b). To enforce these requirements, the old rules required drivers to maintain log books recording their hours and duty status, and subjected drivers to roadside inspections of the books. Id. § 395.8.

B. The Proposed Rule

The FMCSA proposed a significant revision to these rules in the 2000 NPR. It based these revisions on some general scientific conclusions regarding the consequences of sleep deprivation among commercial motor vehicle operators. It noted that research showed that people are much more alert and have better reaction times when they are on regular, twenty-four-hour circadian schedules, as humans are "programmed" to function best when they go to sleep and wake up around the same time every day. 65 Fed. Reg. at 25,553- 54. These effects place nighttime drivers in a physiologically vulnerable position, the agency concluded, because they must sleep during the day, when their bodies are least receptive to sleep, and work during the night, when they are physiologically and cognitively least able. That vulnerability of drivers, in turn, creates a substantial risk of substandard and potentially unsafe driving performance on the part of drivers unless they obtain regular and sufficient restorative sleep. Id. at 25,554. To avoid these problems, the agency concluded that drivers should get, at a minimum, "eight consecutive hours of uninterrupted sleep every day." Id.

Accordingly, the agency proposed several revisions to the existing HOS commercial motor vehicle driver regulations. For long-haul truckers, the agency proposed to limit daily onduty and driving time to twelve hours, with two additional hours off sometime during the workday, providing for a maximum workday of fourteen hours. Id. at 25,581. (Separate rules applied to other categories of commercial motor vehicle drivers.) The NPR proposed requiring drivers to get ten consecutive hours of off-duty time after a ...

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