WASHINGTON (AP) _ Unhappy bus and truck drivers contend proposed new limits on the time they can drive will cost the economy millions of dollars and make the roads less safe.

Drivers and industry representatives packed a Transportation Department hearing room Wednesday as federal regulators began hearings on the new rules.

``The proposal is a knife in the heart of my industry,'' charged Godfrey LeBron of Paradise Tours in Elmont, N.Y.

Ronald Eyre of Eyre Bus Service in Glenelg, Md., agreed, commenting that under the proposed rule he would have to increase his staff from 55 drivers to 86 and buy 10 minivans to send out relief drivers for longer trips.

The rule would establish work limits for five different classes of drivers, with long-distance operators allowed to do no more than 12 hours of driving in a 24-hour period, with two hours of break time within the 12. Long-distance trucks would be required to carry electronic monitors _ black boxes _ to keep track of drivers' work hours.

Current rules, adopted more than 60 years ago, say truckers can drive no more than 10 hours straight, followed by at least eight hours off. But they permit up to 16 hours of driving in a day and don't include required break time as the new rules do.

David Osiecki of the American Trucking Association said leaders of his organization believe the outcome will ``very likely to be less safety, not more.''

The proposed rule would result in ``more trucks operated by more drivers new to the industry, more trucks operating during the day with the rest of us, more trucks being operated in an aggressive fashion and more trucks parking in unsafe locations,'' Osiecki said.

Sgt. David C. Bridge Jr., of the Connecticut Division of Motor Vehicles, said the rules could reduce accidents if properly enforced, but criticized the proposal as overly complex and hard for drivers and regulators to understand.

Announced last month, the proposed changes would prevent 2,600 accidents and as many as 115 fatalities every year, according to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration.

Ed Mortimer of the Transportation Intermediaries Association, which represents transport-related businesses such as warehouses and commodity brokers, worried that drivers nearing the end of their permitted hours would be inclined to speed up to complete a delivery.

Even before the hearings began, the department has been flooded with comments via mail and e-mail. A sampling of the opinions included:

_Robert R. Homan of Port Charlotte, Fla., said he believes the new rules ``are more a result of the desires of the railroads and air-freighters, as these proposals are designed to hamper the movement of freight.''

_``Yo Feds,'' wrote Michael A. Stewart, who didn't give his address. ``Don't knuckle under to the lobbyists. Make the penalties 10 times more severe than they are now. ... Also, you had better enforce them a whole lot better than you enforce the rules now in place.''

_``I do not welcome the addition of a time data recorder onboard my vehicle. ... What's next then? Perhaps a device to monitor the amount of time a driver actually sleeps,'' said Joseph F. Tadlock of Amarillo, Texas.

``What is being done to stop four-wheeled vehicles from driving 36 hours at a time, etc.? They are the cause of 70 percent of ALL accidents involving big trucks,'' asked Dean E. Elliott, Las Vegas, Nev.

Other public hearings on the rules are scheduled for Ontario, Calif., June 7-8; Golden, Colo., June 12-13; Kansas City, Mo., June 15-16; Indianapolis, June 20-21; Hartford, Conn., June 26-27 and Atlanta, June 29-30.

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On the Net:

Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration: http://www.fmcsa.dot.gov