For commercial truck drivers such as Charles Ryser, when the wheels aren't turning, they aren't earning.
Until July, Ryser and his father, David Ryser, who drive as a team, had a routine. Charles took the day shift, and his father got behind the wheel at dusk.
But because of an attempt by the Department of Transportation to reduce the number of fatigued drivers on the road, Charles Ryser now has to comply with rules that lead to more downtime and force him to switch more often with his father, breaking him from his rhythm.
"How is that safe, if you have someone trying to alter their sleep pattern on a dime?" Charles Ryser asked.
Like it or not, the rules are here to stay, as efforts to roll back the changes pushed by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, an arm of the DOT, have failed. The American Trucking Associations and the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, the two main groups that strongly oppose the rules, said that any further legal challenges were unlikely.
The rules were crafted in December 2011 to restrict driving hours. 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 anytime 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 a.m. to 5 a.m. The regulations also add a mandatory 30-minute break after eight hours of driving, while reinforcing that truckers still 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 changes will help prevent 1,400 truck crashes, 560 injuries and 19 deaths per year while affecting only truckers who drive the most hours - less than 15 percent of them.
The DOT doesn't keep truck-specific figures in a way that allows for direct comparison, but a broader category that comprises trucks and buses showed there were 320,000 crashes in 2011 leading to about 4,000 deaths. It is difficult to pinpoint how many truck crashes are due to fatigue, but a study sponsored by the DOT concluded that 13 percent of commercial drivers who were involved in serious crashes were fatigued at the time.
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 driver's 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.
Given the unpredictable nature of loading times, Charles Ryser said he is often delayed for hours waiting for a shipment; that's time he can use to rest.
"We have way too many variables out here on the road," he said. "We've got accidents, delays in shippers and receivers, traffic jams."
Not everybody is hesitant about the new regulations.
In fact, Henry Jasny, the vice president of the Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, doesn't think the rules go far enough. His group pushed to move the clock back to pre-2003 regulations, with no restart and a limit of 10 hours driving per day.
"Today the American public is less safe because this dangerous rule puts the economic profit of the trucking industry ahead of public safety," he said in a statement released after the court decision.
Drivers occupy one of the exemptions to federal overtime laws, and many get paid per mile. In the DOT's analysis of costs and benefits, the new rules are an overall positive, providing a net benefit of $205 million annually. While costs were easier to predict, estimating the overall value of the law proved difficult, as the agency highlighted the unpredictable nature of the benefits, including reduced fatigue, coupled with the long-term health benefits of added sleep.
"Studies show that working long daily and weekly hours on a continuing basis is associated with chronic fatigue, a high risk of crashes and a number of serious chronic health conditions in drivers," said Anne Ferro, the head of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration.