There are some 4,000 fatalities each year due to large truck crashes. Is driver fatigue at fault? (Sam Householder/The News via AP)

Dick Pingel has a long wait ahead of him.

He’s sitting in the cab of his 18-wheeler at a warehouse in Norfolk, Neb., at about 3 in the afternoon, waiting to drop off an order of frozen juice. The warehouse had stopped taking deliveries at about 1 p.m. and doesn’t start again until early the next morning. So now, he has to wait at this way station between Omaha and Sioux Falls, where he’ll empty the rest of his load and make his way home to Plover, Wis. — a day later than he’d planned.

For an owner-operator on contract with a distributor that pays for each delivery — rather than by the hour — taking longer to do any given job means a smaller paycheck at the end of the month.

“If the wheels aren’t turning, you’re not earning,” says Pingel, 61. And he thinks the government is making the problem worse, with its restrictions on the number of hours he can drive.

That just changed, at least a little bit. In the spending bill passed by the Senate last week, some of the provisions that truckers consider most onerous got temporarily rolled back.

Hours-of-service rules have been in place for decades, in an effort to keep the roads safe from tired truckers. But they’ve been getting more strict over the past 10 years: In 2003, the Department of Transportation ruled that drivers couldn’t work more than 14 hours at a stretch, and in 2013, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration dropped the number of total driving hours allowed in a week from 82 to 70. Plus, every seven days, drivers have to take a 34-hour rest that covers two periods between 1 a.m. and 5 a.m. For Pingel, that’s just anxiety-provoking.

“It’s real nice to think you’ll be sleeping that whole time,” he says. “All you’re doing is being tense, thinking about how you’re going to get your hours in.”

“It’s real nice to think you’ll be sleeping that whole time,” he says. “All you’re doing is being tense, thinking about how you’re going to get your hours in.”

Last week, however, something unusual happened: The federal government actually made the rules less strict, suspending the requirement that the 34-hour rest include two early morning stints, and effectively bumping the 70-hour restriction back up to 82 (even though few drivers actually reach that maximum). Along with other measures tucked into a $1.014 trillion spending bill, it passed at the last minute with little discussion.

Like many of the rule changes that have little to do with the budget and made it into the final version anyway, the rollback was the top legislative priority for a powerful special interest: the trucking industry, which said the hours-of-service restrictions was its number one most critical issue in an annual survey released in October. That includes the American Trucking Association, which represents large trucking companies, as well as the Owner Operator Independent Drivers Association, which represents free agents like Pingel and has been just as vocal in opposing new rules as the companies that employ them.

Pingel doesn’t think truckers should be forced to drive longer than is safe. He just wants to be in control, stopping when he was sleepy or when traffic was terrible, rather than having to maximize the 14-hour stretches he’s allowed to work before having to take a 10-hour break.

“I think I can pretty much figure out when I can drive, and when I’m tired,” says Pingel, who’s been a one-man trucking operation since 1983, with no serious accidents. “Now, once you start in the morning, no matter how you feel, if you get started and hit Chicago at rush hour, it’s not to your advantage to stop.”

The rules have been the subject of litigation for years now, with the trucking industry arguing that they’re too strong, and safety advocates like Public Citizen insisting that they’re not strong enough (the Teamsters, which represents a fraction of the nation’s drivers and already has contractually defined hours, sides with the safety advocates).

The Department of Transportation has also vehemently opposed weakening the rules, brandishing studies that show truckers who push themselves are less attentive to the road, and not always able to assess their own levels of fatigue. It mostly defeated the lawsuits against it from both sides in 2013, but was no match for Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), who got the deregulatory rider through in the final budget that passed over the weekend — leading to prognostications of more crashes caused by drowsy drivers.

The trucking industry, however, has a safety argument of its own: It says that the early morning hours when the government wants truckers to sleep are actually the emptiest time on the roads, which reduces accidents (the National Fraternal Order of Police agreed, supporting the delay of the rules, while the International Association of Chiefs of Police disagreed, opposing it). That’s why it wants another study of the law’s “unintended impacts,” and the rollback expires at the end of next September, giving the DOT time to do some extra research.

In the meantime, the trucking industry is expected to become more productive, and Pingel has a little more freedom to make some extra cash for the holidays. He grosses about $220,000 a year, but with maintenance and gas, he’s left with about $55,000. Enough to live modestly, but not enough to recover if anything were to happen to his truck — itself a powerful incentive against reckless driving.

“I’ve got $200,000 invested in a business that I’ve had for 35 years that I could lose by one accident,” he says.