Wal-Mart and other retailers are lobbying Congress to extend the workday for truckers to 16 hours, something labor unions and safety advocates say would make roadways more dangerous for all drivers.

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WASHINGTON — Wal-Mart and other retailers are lobbying Congress to extend the workday for truckers to 16 hours, something labor unions and safety advocates say would make roadways more dangerous for all drivers.

U.S. Rep. John Boozman, R-Ark., whose district includes Wal-Mart’s headquarters in Bentonville, is sponsoring a bill that would allow the longer workday as long as the trucker took an unpaid two-hour break. The bill was expected to be offered as an amendment during debate over the highway spending bill today.

“Truckers are pushing harder than ever to make their runs within the mandated time frame,” Boozman said. “Optional rest breaks will reduce driver layovers and improve both safety and efficiency.”

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Current rules limit the workday to 14 hours, with only 11 consecutive hours of driving allowed, union leaders and safety advocates say. That gives truckers three hours to eat, rest or load and unload their cargo.

Critics of the proposal accuse Wal-Mart of trying to fatten its profits by forcing truckers to spend more time waiting at the loading dock without getting paid.

The International Brotherhood of Teamsters “hasn’t gotten one complaint from drivers saying they don’t have time for a break or a meal,” the union’s vice president, John Murphy, said at a news conference yesterday.

Joan Claybrook, president of the safety-advocacy group Public Citizen, said drivers could end up starting at 8 a.m. and quitting at midnight.

“This is a sweatshop-on-wheels amendment,” Claybrook said. “The last thing we need is for tired truckers to become even more fatigued and threaten the safety of those around them on the roads.”

The current rule had been struck down in federal court because it didn’t take into account drivers’ health. In October, Congress reinstated the rule for one year.

If the Boozman proposal is adopted, it would retain the 16-hour workday regardless of any new rule.

Nearly 5,000 people were killed in large-truck crashes in 2003, and those vehicles were three times more likely than passenger cars to be involved in fatal crashes, according to the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration.

Wal-Mart spokesman Erik Winborn said the proposal has broad support among the trucking industry and other retailers.

“We support it because we feel it would actually enhance safety rather than hurt safety,” said Winborn, whose company employs about 7,000 truck drivers.

Wal-Mart employees were Boozman’s top contributors in 2003-04, giving him $48,152 for his re-election campaign, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Wal-Mart and its employees gave $44,500 to Boozman for his first successful bid for Congress in 2001-02, the last year corporations could give to congressional candidates.