The Department of Transportation has recently taken first steps toward relaxing federal regulations on drive times and required breaks for truck drivers.

This is a controversial move that trucking industry interest groups hail as necessary, but one that safety advocates denounce as dangerous.

Under current trucking regulations, drivers are capped at 11 hours of drive time per day within a 14-hour on-duty window, with a required half-hour break during that time regardless of any other “down time.” These regulations have been in place since the 1930s, but “fudging” the numbers has been common because log books were kept by hand, practically on an honor system.

That all changed in December 2017 when the government began requiring long-haul trucks to use electronic logging devices that track a driver’s activity down to the minute. With these new enforcements in place, industry interest groups contend that the regulations need to be more flexible, citing examples of drivers who had to stay parked with their trucks for 10 hours at a time just minutes from home because they had reached the drive time cap. In response, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration is considering easing these standards by allowing drivers to split up their sleep time and be less stringent about the mandatory break, along with other easements.

Proponents of these changes say the relaxed requirements will give drivers much needed “flexibility.”

However, highway safety advocacy groups have expressed deep concern about relaxing the regulations, citing numbers that fatal accidents involving trucks are on the rise. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration reports that more than 4,600 trucks were involved in fatal accidents in 2017 – an increase of 10 percent from the year before.

Cathy Chase, President of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, believes the current hours of service regulations are already “exceedingly liberal” and should be tightened, not loosened. “I think flexibility is a code word for deregulation,” she told the Associated Press; adding that truck crash fatalities have risen 40 percent since 2009.

Despite the current push, an actual relaxation of the rules may still be months away. The next step in the process will be for the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration to issue an Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, followed by a two-month period for comments on proposed changes before the administration officially announces new policies.