U.S. Transportation Department regulations meant to ensure truck drivers get more rest were mostly upheld by a federal appeals court, a defeat for companies that said the rules would add cost without improving highway safety.

A three-judge panel of the Court of Appeals in Washington today rejected most arguments made by the American Trucking Associations Inc. as “highly technical points best left to the agency.” The court, giving one win to the industry, vacated a 30-minute rest requirement for short-haul truck drivers.

The ruling caps 14 years of wrangling among the trucking industry, safety advocates and regulators over drive-time restrictions that led to two previous challenges before the appellate court. The court also ruled against groups including Public Citizen and the Truck Safety Coalition that said the rules didn’t go far enough.

“With one small exception, our decision today brings an end to much of the permanent warfare,” U.S. Circuit Judge Janice Rogers Brown said in the decision.

Longer rest breaks and the need to redesign routes may reduce productivity by 3 percent, translating into $18 billion in additional costs to the trucking industry annually, according to freight data and forecasting firm FTR Associates.

Regulators said they weighed industry costs against billions of dollars in health-care savings and reduced accidents in a profession that has more on-the-job deaths than any other in the U.S.

‘Unlimited Deference’

The average life expectancy of a truck driver is 61, or 16 years less than the U.S. average, according to Centers for Disease Control data. Trucking is the eighth-most dangerous job in terms of deaths per worker, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The final rule, which took effect July 1, maintained an 11-hour limit on truckers’ driving day from previous rules, while altering a 34-hour rest period each week so drivers would be required to be off two consecutive nights.

The Arlington, Virginia-based American Trucking Associations is disappointed in the court’s “unlimited deference” to the administration’s analysis in supporting the regulation, Dave Osiecki, the group’s senior vice president of policy and regulatory affairs, said in a statement.

Language the court used to highlight the shortcomings of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s deliberations should serve as a warning on issuing “similarly unsubstantiated rulemakings in the future,” Osiecki said.

“One thing this rulemaking makes clear is that fatigue is a small problem when viewed through a crash causation lens,” Osiecki said.

14 Years

The court’s decision will allow the industry to improve safety by reducing driver fatigue, a leading factor in truck crashes, said Duane DeBruyne, a FMCSA spokesman, in a statement.

“The ruling recognizes the sensible, data-driven approach that was taken,” DeBruyne said. It “also provides added certainty for all affected, moving forward.”

Analysts expect trucking companies will lose 3 percent to 6 percent of their productivity, saidLee Klaskow, analyst with Bloomberg Industries. Bigger companies with more technology and financial strength will adapt better, including Swift Transportation Co. (SWFT), Knight Transportation Inc. (KNX), Heartland Express Inc. (HTLD) and Werner Enterprises Inc. (WERN), Klaskow said.

“Now all the players know the rules and will adjust their networks, equipment and drivers accordingly,” Klaskow said.

Driver Fatigue

The trucking industry has been fighting the Transportation Department on the issue since Congress first mandated the regulation in 1999.

A 2003 rule allowing longer driving shifts was successfully challenged by consumer groups, which persuaded the court to send it back to the FMCSA, the regulator for trucking and bus companies, for reworking. A 2005 rule was also challenged in court and sent back.

The agency began another rulemaking in 2008, only to hold back and negotiate with safety groups when they threatened litigation. That led to three years of deliberation before the latest regulation was published in December 2011.

The Transportation Department estimated the regulation would cost the industry about $470 million a year with net benefits of around $630 million through fewer crashes, healthier drivers and fewer highway fatalities.

The trucking industry has said costs will be much higher as companies have to redesign their networks and drivers are forced onto the road during urban rush hours. Companies also say they’ll being forced to hire more drivers when there’s already a shortage of qualified candidates.

‘Rolling Sweatshops’

Truck-related fatalities rose 2 percent to 3,757 in 2011 and injuries increased 10 percent to 88,000, according to data compiled by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Those levels were below the annual average 4,296 deaths and 74,800 injuries over the decade ended in 2011.

Fatigue was a factor in about 13 percent of serious crashes involving large trucks, according to a July 2007 study by NHTSA and FMCSA. The trucking trade group said the figure is more like 2 percent.

Safety groups also had sued over the final rule, saying the regulator should have limited driving shifts to 10 hours. They said drivers use loopholes in the rules to regularly work more than 70 hours in a seven-day work week.

Retaining the longer work shifts will make the American public less safe, said Henry Jasny, vice president and general counsel of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety. The FMCSA has put profits of the trucking industry ahead of the public’s safety, Jasny said.

“Upholding this rule will continue to make our trucks rolling sweatshops,” said Joan Claybrook, chairman of the board of Citizens for Reliable and Safe Highways. “Truck drivers will continue to be pushed beyond their limits and will imperil not just their own lives but the safety of all of us sharing the roads.”