Trucks at Work


"Oh, I knew there'd be hell to pay/but that crossed my mind a little too late." -- Dierks Bentley

So we may finally get a glimpse of what changes - if any - the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) is going to make to the hours-of-service (HOS) regulations that govern the working days and nights of U.S. truckers.

There‘s a going to be a hearing this week - Dec. 12 - before the Surface Transportation and Merchant Marine Infrastructure, Safety, and Security Subcommittee that‘ll be focused almost exclusively on the contents of HOS rules FMCSA submitted Nov. 27 to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). The contents of those rules weren‘t revealed to the public, so this week‘s hearing is probably going to be the industry‘s first look at them.

The Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association (OOIDA) is one group planning to attend this hearing in force to see what the lay of the new HOS land will look like - with senior member Walter Krupski from New Jersey, a long time trucker from New Jersey, testifying before the assembled Congressional members.

All of this devolves from the legal decision handed down this past summer by the District Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, which declared two key provisions of the current HOS rules adopted in 2004 -an increase in driving time from 10 to 11 hours and the 34-hour restart provision - null and void.

Yet a close reading of the court‘s decision indicates (at least to this thick-headed reporter) that these two elements got tossed because the FMCSA didn‘t provide enough data, or maybe the right kind of data, to explain their reasoning behind green-lighting those two provisions. In other word‘s, FMCSA got charged with the equivalent of a technicality.

So that leaves me to believe that what we might see this week when the curtain is pulled back on FMCSA‘s revised HOS rules are ... the exact same rules, but with different and more detailed paperwork supporting them. No change to the 11-hour drive time limit; no change to the 34-hour restart. If that‘s so, I would fully expect the same parties that sued the first time around - Public Citizen at the fore - to sue the FMCSA again, if the D.C. Appeals Court doesn‘t throw out the agency‘s argument right from the get go, that is.

At the end of the day, we‘re all going to be right back where we started - trying to establish a single set of rules that govern the working hours of millions of truck drivers, people whose sleep patterns are all over the map, working in an industry that must serve the 24/7 needs of our economy and society at large. To call this a Gordian knot is an understatement, for you can‘t solve this problem al la Alexander the Great (cutting it down the middle with a sword - that‘s a sharp dude).

Vic Suski, a senior engineer at the American Trucking Associations - one of the largest lobbying groups in trucking - and I shared a few emails on the topic, and his frustrations with the regulations speak for a lot of drivers and carriers, I think. “Look, some of us are ‘night people‘ and some are day people,” he told me. “Let drivers drive when they know they are at their best: don‘t cram them into one-size-fits-all regulations.”

It‘s a good point, but the obvious problem is not all drivers will conduct themselves professionally - making sure they get enough rest, not pushing it while fatigued - and so increasing the risks of an accident. The blunt truth is that people cheat in the business world - just look at the sleight-of-hand of Enron for starters - and without regulations in place, legitimate law-abiding companies and their employees lose out.

But at the same time there‘s got to be some way we can come up with a set of rules that give drivers the flexibility to take naps and get sufficient rest without impacting their ability to make a good living. It‘s a tall order, for sure. We‘ll see if we can tackle it over the next few months.