They drive by night

Running counter to reality, feds hint at restricting truckers after darkOver half a century ago, Humphrey Bogart and George Raft breathed life into two of the most hard-boiled, hard-driving truckers ever to grace the movies in the classic blue-collar epic, They Drive By Night.By the time I first saw it, the black-and-white flick had long since been relegated to TVs Late, Late Show. In this case, insomnia

Running counter to reality, feds hint at restricting truckers after dark

Over half a century ago, Humphrey Bogart and George Raft breathed life into two of the most hard-boiled, hard-driving truckers ever to grace the movies in the classic blue-collar epic, They Drive By Night.

By the time I first saw it, the black-and-white flick had long since been relegated to TVs Late, Late Show. In this case, insomnia was its own reward. The film left an indelible impression about driving a truck. That its a tough job. And that doing it at night is probably three times as rough.

Yes, things have changed since that gritty depiction of trucking came to the screen. Trucks then were little more than motorized buckboards. Trucks now are more akin to motor coaches. Not to mention the roads are better. The drivers are, too.

What hasnt changed since FDR was president are the hours-of-service regulations governing the duty cycles of truck drivers. And most of the year, nighttime still takes up about half of every blessed day.

The question, When will we see new hours-of-service regs? has become to trucking what When will we see the Red Sox in the Series? is to baseball.

Although the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) doesnt seem all that gung-ho about updating these sadly antiquated rules, there is movement of a sort afoot.

FHWA recently released what it enticingly calls a Summary of Expert Panel report. It features opinions on the scientific rationale supporting both current and potential hours-of-service regs.

The document includes the opinions of eight experts from the University of Michigans Transportation Research Institute (UMTRI), drawn from the fields of truck and traffic safety, human factors, and sleep/fatigue studies.

In its member newsletter, the Truckload Carriers Assn. (TCA) points out that the report provides new insight into comments about nighttime driving recently made by various FHWA officials.

But first the good news. The UMTRI panel suggested several issues FHWA should delve into. Key among these is identification of a 24-hour cycle the human body responds to.

The experts went on to say that whatever new regs are adopted should conform to the cycle simply because this biological predisposition cannot be changed by bureaucratic regulation or even economic necessity.

Amen! Or as TCA dryly noted, The trucking industry as a whole has long supported this conclusion.

But wait, there is some bad news, too. The same panel concluded that metabolism, and thus alertness, are linked with a 24-hour body cycle. Stating the obvious, the experts opined that nighttime driving must be recognized as more demanding.

Gee, youd have thought they picked the name of that movie out of a hat. Of course driving by night is a bigger challenge. Its dark out there. And youre just that much closer to bedtime all the time.

The really chilling part of the report for trucking managers is the panels assertion that special considerations must govern nighttime schedules. We all know that kind of vague language can mean all sorts of things.

In TCAs level-headed view, those words help explain recent statements flowing out of FHWA. For example, Paul Brennan, director of the Office of Motor Carrier Research & Standards, reportedly said the agency is considering restricting the number of hours allowed behind the wheel between midnight and 6 a.m. in a 70-hour duty cycle. He was quoted as saying such a change could hold drivers to just 18 hours of overnight driving in any 70-hour tour of duty.

TCA also reported Brennans response to a question about whether such restrictions would increase daytime road congestion. The government, he said, doesnt have the total answer. Theres no magic bullet.

Of that we are sure. But if the governments going to be happy enough firing that caliber of bullet at trucking, fleet managers had better get their own proposals ready to shoot back.

You may have to remind those good folks in Washington that your fleet and its drivers still drive by night. Not because they want to but because the nations business demands it.

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