Photo for The Washington Post by Amanda Voisard

The U.S. Transportation Department on Thursday loosened rest requirements for truck drivers, a change in the works since early in the Trump administration that comes as truckers work to keep vital supplies rolling during the pandemic.

The controversial changes to the intricate rules governing truck drivers’ “hours of service,” set to take effect in September, were lauded by some industry groups while being derided by some road safety advocates.

Trucking groups said the department’s changes to the rules — which govern how many consecutive hours drivers must rest and define how breaks must be taken after a certain number of hours on the job, among other things — will provide flexibility for drivers.

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, which regulates trucking, “is always in a tough spot when it comes to regulatory reform, and finding a balance to make all parties happy is virtually impossible,” said Lewie Pugh, executive vice president of the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association. “Nothing is easy in D.C., but this is a step in the right direction.”

Safety advocates said the changes would make highways more dangerous.

“Under the guise of increased flexibility, the changes will further exacerbate the already well-known threat of fatigue among commercial motor vehicle drivers,” Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety said in a statement, adding that the rule changes “will endanger all roadway users.”

Jim Mullen, acting administrator of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, disagreed.

“These reforms will improve safety on America’s roadways and strengthen the nation’s motor carrier industry,” Mullen said in a statement. Motor carrier administration officials said the changes were informed by thousands of public comments and will result in hundreds of millions of dollars in “regulatory savings,” boosting the economy at a critical time.

The regulation changes come as some truckers continue to bristle at requirements that they use electronic logging devices, which give a more precise view of how they manage their time and rest.

Joan Claybrook, a former administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration who is now with the group Citizens for Reliable and Safe Highways, said in a statement that it is “no coincidence” that the effort to loosen the rules came after truck companies and drivers were required “to objectively verify their driving time by using electronic logging devices to ensure compliance with federal rules. We know that in the past, skirting the rules or falsifying hours of service records was common and widespread.”

Todd Spencer, president of the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, which petitioned the Transportation Department for the regulatory changes, said that truckers are regularly beset by costly, time-consuming bottlenecks, and that the changes released by the department on Thursday will “provide for a bit of increased flexibility for many professional drivers.”

“However, the real hours and fatigue issue that drivers have to contend with isn’t time working; it’s time waiting to load and unload. Right now most drivers end up donating this time, often 20 to 40 hours every week,” Spencer said. “That’s the real fatigue issue that costs drivers specifically and undermines the efficiency of the entire supply chain.”