Trucks at Work
Trying to solve the unsolvable

Trying to solve the unsolvable

The ones planning the loads get to go home every night and sleep. They don’t stay up all night to get those loads to where they need to go.” –An 8-year veteran truck driver commenting on the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s proposed changes of hours of service (HOS) regulations

Sitting through yet another “listening session” on the hours of service (HOS) reforms being proposed by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) reinforced a maxim well understood by those inside and outside the trucking business: what works out on paper rarely works out in reality.

[Watch the clip below for a quick summation of the reasoning behind FMCSA’s current HOS reform effort as well as the seven changes the agency is proposing.]

On top of that, trying to governing the many different styles of truck operations in existence today is almost impossible with a single, rigid set of rules.

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Dean Riland, (at right) safety director for the Pennsylvania Motor Truck Association, noted this in his testimony before FMCSA’s officials yesterday, using the shipment of “oversize” loads as an example.

“In Pennsylvania, oversized loads are restricted to be hauled between sunrise and sunset, and cannot be hauled between 7:30 a.m. and 9 a.m. as well as between 4 p.m. and 7 p.m. in urban areas,” he noted. “Yet these proposed HOS rules would put those carrying oversized loads in direct conflict with those parameters.”

More broadly, as the industry has adapted itself to an 11-hour drive time schedule, the FMCSA’s desire to move back to a 10-hour limit would hurt productivity and efficiency, added to the cost of reconfiguring freight networks to compensate for a loss of that extra hour of driving time.

“Since the current HOS rules went into effect in 2004, we reduced the number of terminals in our system from 500 to 365,” noted Bob Petrancosta, vp-safety for LTL carrier Con-way Freight. “Moving back to a 10 hour drive time limit would disrupt the movement of freight within our system and force us to realign both infrastructure and assets, while relocating many of our employees. We’d also need more drivers to service the same amount of freight and would be forced to put more trucks on the road during the daytime.”

[You can watch other fleets present their case regarding the negative impact of proposed HOS changes in the clip below.]

Safety groups at the listensing session, not surprisingly, are in favro of the one-hour drive time reduction favored by FMCSA, but actually would like it rolled back further to an 8-hour limit, according to Henry Jasny, general counsel of the Advocates for Auto and Highway Safety (AAHS) group.

“In our view, we would like drive time to stay at eight hours, but we know the agency won’t propose that,” he stated. “So if the best we can get is 10 hours that is acceptable. We think this is a reasonable restriction and the industry functioned under it for decades.”

[You can watch more of Jasny’s testimony below.]

Those representing drivers take a dim view of FMCSA’s HOS proposals, largely because they see these changes resulting in less flexibility for the truck driver’s working day – a day that’s largely governed by factors well outside the driver’s control.

“In a just-in-time, deregulated industry, trucking has de-evolved to where truckers are donating their time to the benefit of shippers and receivers. The problem persists because it doesn’t cost shippers or receivers to squander drivers’ time,” explained Todd Spencer, executive vp for the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association (OOIDA).

Surveys conducted by OOIDA indicate as many as 40 hours per week are spent by drivers waiting to be loaded or unloaded, and he pointed to a study by FMCSA the found this cost to the industry is more than $3 billion per year and the cost to the public is more than $6.5 billion per year.

“The colossal, mind-numbing wait times at loading docks are the biggest drain on productivity and on drivers,” said Spencer. “Shippers and receivers have for too long gotten away with wasting truckers’ time without any accountability for their role in the ultimate effect it has on highway safety.”

[Here are some other comments Spencer made at the FMCSA’s listening session regarding proposed HOS changes.]

There are even those within the industry that believe the current effort to reform HOS rules has little to do with improving safety and far more to do with political dealmaking.

Gov. Bill Graves, president and CEO of the American Trucking Associations (ATA) trade group, discussed this view in a speech at the 2011 Technology & Maintenance Council annual meeting earlier this month.

At the end of the day, though, what ultimately happens regarding this latest attempt to revise HOS rules may not matter much. I say that because, as I’ve noted in this space before, there’s a huge “generational shift” now occurring in this U.S., with 77 million “baby boomers” poised to retire over the next two decades, replaced by only 46 million new workers, according to numbers tracked by the American Society for Training and Development (ASTD).

That “generational shift” is nowhere more acute than trucking, where the average age of an owner-operator today is 49.6, while the average age of a company driver is around 48.6.

Those numbers indicate fewer and fewer younger workers are becoming truck drivers, and without them, trucks don’t move and freight doesn’t get delivered.

We can talk about moving more freight to other modes such as trains and inland waterways, but a truck is still needed to get freight from the ultimate origin to that railhead depot of waterway siding, just as they are needed to bring freight from such modes to its final destination.

Fewer drivers combined with fewer drive time hours inexorably leads to less capacity and longer freight shipment times. That’s not a bad thing in and of itself, you know, especially if fleets can get higher rates and the truck drivers gets better pay and more home time.

But in a world where everyone has become accustomed to the rapid delivery of all sorts of goods – from clothes to fresh organic farm produce – higher costs and longer shipment times are going to come as quite a shock. Then again, maybe such a shock is long overdue.