David Crigger/Associated Press

Highway safety regulators are changing work rules that limit truck drivers’ time behind the wheel, shifts they said would give drivers more flexibility without increasing overall daily driving time.

The new regulations, which come as truck drivers face tough operating conditions amid the coronavirus pandemic, would save trucking companies an estimated nearly $274 million annually over 10 years, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration said Thursday.

The modifications are aimed at settling years of debates between safety advocates, trucking companies and drivers over regulations intended to reduce accidents caused by highway fatigue. The rules limit most commercial truck drivers to 11 hours of driving time in a 14-hour workday, with certain prescribed rest breaks.

Some trucking companies and independent truck drivers say the existing rules are too rigid and end up running out the clock when drivers get stuck in traffic or are waiting at loading docks. Safety advocates and the Teamsters union warn that altering the regulations could increase the risk of crashes.

Under the hours-of-service rules set to take effect later this year, periods when long-haul truck drivers are on duty but not driving can be used to satisfy a required 30-minute break after eight hours of driving. Drivers also gain additional leeway to split a mandated 10-hour off-duty period into two separate breaks, neither of which would count against their 14-hour driving window.

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The agency extended drivers’ maximum on-duty period by two hours in the event of adverse conditions such as severe weather. The new rules also expand an exemption for short-haul drivers, who can now be on duty for 14 hours instead of 12 and are allowed to travel 150 miles, up from the previous limit of 100 miles.

“These reforms will improve safety on America’s roadways and strengthen the nation’s motor carrier industry,” FMCSA Acting Administrator Jim Mullen said in a statement. The changes will take effect 120 days after they are published in the Federal Register.

The updates come as trucking companies are coping with sharply reduced freight volumes because of coronavirus-driven lockdowns.

An index of North American trucking and rail shipments fell 22.7% in April compared to the previous year, to the lowest level in more than a decade, according to

Cass Information Systems Inc.,

which handles freight payments for companies. Cass said trucking rates declined 7% last month from a year ago.

In March the FMCSA suspended driving-time limitations for truckers moving emergency supplies or personnel in response to the coronavirus pandemic. The agency this week extended that exemption through June 14.

Write to Jennifer Smith at

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