A federal appeals court in Washington, D.C., last week let stand virtually all of the federal government’s new rules governing the operations of the nation’s truck drivers. The ruling will likely end the long debate between multiple groups over how fleets and their drivers should operate their rigs. Enforcement of the new rules went into effect July 1, 18 months after the policy was proposed.

The court, with one exception, upheld the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s (FMCSA) 2011 over-the-road drivers’ hours of service (HOS) final regulations. The court overturned a FMCSA provision requiring a 30-minute break for short-haul drivers, defined in this instance as local delivery drivers, such as those working for companies like FedEx and UPS.

The American Trucking Associations (ATA) sued the FMCSA in an effort to overturn the rules. The National Chicken Council and many other groups supported ATA in the efforts.

In its December 2011 rule, FMCSA reduced a driver’s seven-day work week to 70 hours from 82 hours, a 15-percent cut. For the first time ever, drivers also have limits placed on their traditional 34-hour minimum restart period, requiring it to occur once every seven days and to include two rest periods between 1 a.m. and 5 a.m. over two consecutive days. The 2011 rule bars truckers from driving more than eight hours without first taking at least a 30-minute off-duty break.

In its revisions, the agency left unchanged a key provision allowing 11 hours of continuous drive time after a driver has spent 10 consecutive hours off duty, instead of reducing the number of continuous driving hours to 10.

Last week’s court decision marked the third time in 10 years that the appeals court has ruled on the issue of driver hours. At the end of its 22-page decision, the court, perhaps tongue in cheek, said, “the third time’s a charm.” In an effort to add historical context, the court said its action “brings to an end much of the permanent warfare surrounding the HOS rules.”

Still, the court chided the FMCSA, saying the Department of Transportation’s truck safety subagency prevailed “not on the strengths of its rulemaking prowess, but through an artless war of attrition.”

While the court ruling was not a ringing endorsement of the merits of the FMCSA policy, it found that the agency did not behave “arbitrarily and capriciously” in weighing the merits of the restart provisions. The judges added that FMCSA “acted reasonably, if incrementally, in tailoring the restart to promote driver health and safety.”

In its statement, ATA chose to focus on the court’s decision denying the rest provision for the local delivery drivers. The group also noted that, although the court found various flaws with FMCSA’s rationale, it declined to second-guess the agency’s methodologies and interpretations and instead deferred to its technical expertise in the issue.

Dave Osiecki, ATA’s senior vice president of policy and regulatory affairs, said in the statement that evidence presented in the rulemaking process made clear that driver fatigue is a minor factor in the cause of crashes involving a truck. “ATA hopes FMCSA will work with the trucking industry to address more pressing safety and driver behavior issues, including those than can be directly affected through proven traffic enforcement activities aimed at unsafe operating behaviors,” he said.

According to a report in DC Velocity, the 2011 rules have become some of the most publicly reviled policy changes in transportation history. Carriers say the rules cut into their productivity and require them to deploy more resources to move the same amount of freight they handle now. Shippers say the new rules have led to a 3- to 5-percent decrease in vehicle miles driven, forcing them to reconfigure their manufacturing and distribution networks if they wish to accomplish getting their goods to market in a timely fashion.

Drivers claim the rules curtail their ability to earn a living and force rest upon them when they do not need it. Regulators worry that carriers will put more trucks on the road to offset the productivity losses. Some congressmen have argued the rule creates a safety hazard by having more commercial drivers on the highways at the same time as millions of morning rush-hour commuters.