WASHINGTON For commercial truck drivers such as Charles Ryser, when the wheels aren't turning, you aren't earning.
Until July, Ryser and his father who drive in a team from a base in Forsyth, Ga. worked on their own terms. Charles took the day shift, while his father, David Ryser, got behind the wheel at dusk.
But because of a Department of Transportation crackdown on fatigued drivers, Ryser now has to comply with rules that lead to more downtime and force him to switch shifts regularly with his father, breaking his rhythm.
"How is that safe, if you have someone trying to alter their sleep pattern on a dime?" Ryser asked.
He's not the only one questioning the new laws. Several Northern San Joaquin Valley truckers have voiced concerns about the government's rules.
"The more laws and BS that people who have never even sat in a truck make up, (the more) it makes it extremely hard for us to make money," said Blake Carmickle, who owns his Escalon trucking firm. "I get paid per mile and per load, not by the hour. So I need as much time to put down miles as possible, but nobody cares to see the problems us drivers have."
Lane Harrison, a 28-year trucking veteran from Oakdale, said he's driven nearly 3 million miles and called the laws ridiculous.
"Drivers need time off to rest, but who is the federal government to decide when these breaks are to be taken," Harrison wrote on Facebook in response to a Modesto Bee question. "It is up to the driver to make use of his/her rest periods. It doesn't matter what regulations the feds put on drivers, it is up to the driver to go to bed when it's time."
Harrison said the new regulations make it harder for truckers to earn money, and they will strain the industry: "You will need more trucks on the road and will have more 'greenhorn' drivers in these trucks. In my opinion, this is not the answer."
But Manteca trucker Trevor Shamblin said the rules are not to blame for the industry's problems.
"Large trucking companies have spent millions of dollars over the years making sure they don't have to pay drivers overtime," he said. "When you work by the load or by the mile, you can work 15-plus-hour days and average less than $12 an hour. Drivers have to work long hours just to make a decent living these days."
How long and what hours truckers can drive are affected by the new federal trucking rules.
Those rules are here to stay because efforts to roll back the changes pushed by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, an arm of the Department of Transportation have failed. Earlier this month, the DOT won a key legal victory after the U.S. Court of Appeals upheld most of the rules.
The American Trucking Associations and the Owner Operator Independent Drivers Association, the two main groups strongly opposing the rules, said more legal challenges were unlikely.
The rules were crafted in December 2011 to restrict driving hours more tightly. The biggest change comes from restructuring the "restart" that truckers use to reset their weekly count. The DOT says the revision effectively lowers the maximum average workweek for truckers from 82 to 70 hours.
In the past, a workweek could reset any time after a trucker took 34 consecutive hours off. Now the clock can be reset only once a week and if time off includes two consecutive periods from 1 to 5 a.m. The rules add a mandatory 30-minute break after eight hours of driving while reinforcing that truckers may not drive more than 11 hours a day.
The new restart, advocates say, is aligned with the body's natural tendencies to sleep at night. The DOT estimates that the rule will help prevent 1,400 truck crashes, 560 injuries and 19 deaths per year, while affecting only the less than 15 percent of truckers who drive the most hours.
Modesto long-haul trucker Christopher Todd said he doesn't mind the mandatory time off: "If I have to take a 34-hour restart, I get time to relax and do laundry, maybe even do some working out and hanging out with friends and family."
Don Goodrich, the safety manager for Gardner Trucking in Manteca, said his company is making the new regulations work. "The feds gave trucking companies more than a year to adjust to this," said Goodrich, whose company employees about 70 long-haul drivers from the Modesto area. "It does cause some difficulties, but by and large, we have adjusted."
Opponents argue that all truckers, not just those with extreme schedules, will feel the ripple effects.
"What they are doing is applying rigidity where there actually needs to be flexibility," said Norita Taylor, a spokeswoman for the Owner Operator Independent Drivers Association. "Not all drivers' jobs and businesses are run the same, and not all people run the same in regards to their body clock."
In the case of the Rysers, shipping delays can create unexpected downtime, potentially forcing them into restarts they'd rather not take. They flip their shifts to avoid that scenario.
Now that the rules are permanent, the Owner Operator Independent Drivers Association plans to focus on a push for increased new-driver training. Currently, long-haul truck drivers don't have mandatory training outside of the commercial driver's license test.
Bee staff writer J.N. Sbranti contributed to this report.