WASHINGTON — Retailers stocking store shelves for holiday got a gift from federal regulators last week who upheld existing limits on commercial truck drivers’ hours behind the wheel after a federal court said the time period should be cut.

This story first appeared in the December 18, 2007 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, a division of the Department of Transportation, issued an interim ruling on Dec. 11 that maintains the existing limit of 11 consecutive hours and then 10 hours of rest.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ruled in July that the number of hours that a truck driver could be on the road should be cut to 10 hours, but stayed a final decision until Dec. 27, pending more information from the government. Consumer advocacy groups had sued to limit the driving hours, arguing trucker fatigue led to more fatalities and put the public at risk.

“The data makes clear that these rules continue to protect drivers, make our roads safer and keep our economy moving,” John H. Hill, administrator of the safety administration, said in a statement.

The agency cited 2006 statistics, showing that the fatality rate per 100 million vehicle miles traveled was 1.94 — the lowest rate ever recorded.

For retailers like Wal-Mart Stores Inc., which owns one of the largest private truck fleets in the U.S. and has one of the most extensive logistics and supply chain networks, a reduction in hours for truckers could lead to higher transportation costs and a cut into the bottom line, said supply chain and trucking experts.

“This capacity issue is very critical to every retailer in America,” said Gary Petty, president and chief executive officer for the National Private Truck Council, which has members such as Wal-Mart Transportation, VF Jeanswear, Milliken & Co. and Target Corp. “How often a truck gets in, what load it’s carrying and how frequently and rapidly it all gets distributed on shelves is so fundamental to the success of retailers’ individual stores and to the success of our economy.”

Petty said there has been no evidence to the “compromise of public safety” with the 11-hour rule and argued that drivers are generally more productive because the rule gives them the opportunity to increase their compensation.

Consumer advocacy groups, such as Ralph Nader’s Public Citizen, a plaintiff in the lawsuit, were disappointed with the latest developments.

“With its action…the [Bush] administration has shown that it is willing to risk carnage on the highways to boost the bottom line for big corporations,” said Joan Claybrook, president of Public Citizen and a former administrator with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, in a statement.

“We urge the agency to draft a rule based on science instead of industry politics — a rule that will protect truck drivers and those of us who share the road with them.”