Truckers hauling fireworks to light up cities nationwide are being exempted for the July 4th holiday period from strict federal limits on the length of their work day, sparking concerns for safety advocates. But the industry says without it, some places wouldn't have enough green to pay for flashes of red, white and blue.
The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration has granted an exemption to hours-of-service rules for members of the American Pyrotechnics Association, covering 3,000 commercial drivers and about 50 companies carrying an estimated 10 million pounds of fireworks across the country. Truckers must still adhere to daily driving limits, but can exclude off-duty or rest periods that would normally count against their 14-hour workday.
Still, these truckers will be working longer days at a time when the American Automobile Association estimates 39 million motorists will be traveling 50 miles or more during the July 4th holiday weekend.
"You've already got more people on the roadways, so it's already more dangerous," said AAA Mid-Atlantic spokeswoman Martha Meade. "Then you exempt drivers who have explosives in the back of their truck, and it's almost like you can see the headlines now."
Asked about the policy, Department of Transportation spokesman Duane DeBruyne referred to the Federal Register entry for the exemption. It says the agency believes the drivers will meet or exceed current safety standards, and that it has "received no accident notifications, nor is the agency aware of any accidents reportable under terms of the exemption."
The fireworks industry group has been given exemptions since 2004, after federal driving rules were changed, without incident. Association officials say extending the amount of time truckers can be available is needed to get fireworks to cities and to give drivers time to set up and set off the displays for holiday celebrations. The drivers hauling the fireworks are often the lead technician responsible for filling the sky with bursts of color.
Most of the trips are short, but the time spent setting off a fireworks display and getting to the next location after the show can cut into the 14-hour maximum that drivers can be on the road per day, said Julie Heckman, executive director of the fireworks industry group. Others in the industry say the low number of commercial drivers with permissions to haul hazardous materials adds to the need for an exemption.
"We have a very narrow window of opportunity to put on well over 14,000 displays across this country for just the 4th of July weekend," Heckman said. "Without an exemption we couldn't do it."
The exemption is for an 11-day period around July 4th. Drivers are still subject to an overall 14-hour on-duty limit (excluding rest periods and time off) and the 11-hour driving time limit, as well as weekly limits. They must also have 10 hours off in between shifts.
The exemption means that a driver whose typical day is from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. could work until midnight if he spends two hours on a break before a fireworks show.
"The 4th of July is similar to our retail season," said Stephen Vitale, president of Pennsylvania-based Pyrotecnico, which uses about 300 trucks to transport enough fireworks to produce about 600 fireworks displays across the U.S. around Independence Day.
The exemption makes it "efficient and affordable" for companies and communities footing the bill, Vitale said. An average fireworks display around the holiday costs about $15,000, and without the exemption, those costs could double because more trucks and drivers would be needed, he said.
In the association's federal exemption application, it says if companies had to have additional drivers, those higher costs would mean "many Americans would be denied this important component of the celebration of Independence Day," according to an entry in the Federal Register.
But that shouldn't come at the cost of safety, contends Henry Jasny, general counsel for Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, a safety and consumer group supported by the insurance industry.
"We don't want to be the Grinch that steals 4th of July from small towns, but they are making a trade-off between safety and cost of fireworks displays," Jasny said. "To get that fireworks display, they're allowing drivers potentially to drive while fatigued."
The National Transportation Safety Board this month listed driver fatigue on its revamped list of top priorities to improve safety. As many as one-third of all commercial motor vehicle crashes are due to fatigue, according to the NTSB.
AAA's Meade also noted that driver fatigue has been a factor in several recent fatal bus crashes, though buses are subject to an entirely different set of regulations.
The fireworks industry group disputes that the exemption could contribute to driver fatigue.
Drivers often start their shifts in the early morning when traffic is light, and after they get to their destination and set up the displays, they have several hours to rest before they have to hit the road again.
In order to get the exemption, the association must demonstrate that it can maintain a level of safety equal to, or greater than, its level of safety under normal rules.
"Presumably if the agency approved it, the association successfully demonstrated that," said Rob Abbott, vice president of safety policy for the American Trucking Association and an advisory committee member for the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration.
Abbott said that despite various businesses operating trucks, the most recent figures from 2009 show that overall the trucking industry is the safest it has ever been, even though there's been an increase in the number of miles driven each year.
The fireworks industry isn't the only one to receive exemptions on driving rules during certain times of the year.
Truck drivers for retail stores are allowed similar exemptions during the Christmas holiday season when making deliveries to customers between Dec. 10 and Dec. 25, and drivers transporting property or passengers to or from motion picture productions also are exempt from certain rules. There also are exemptions for utility companies whose drivers are working in natural disaster areas.
Michael Felberbaum can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/MLFelberbaum.