Skirting hours rules

Two carriers will try to convince the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) that they should be allowed to implement their own driver fatigue management plans instead of following the rigid hours-of-service regulations. If successful, Dart Transit, Eagan, MN, and Star Transport, Morton, IL, will have accomplished something no other companies are believed to have done. They will have

Two carriers will try to convince the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) that they should be allowed to implement their own driver fatigue management plans instead of following the rigid hours-of-service regulations.

If successful, Dart Transit, Eagan, MN, and Star Transport, Morton, IL, will have accomplished something no other companies are believed to have done. They will have cajoled a federal agency into allowing them to substitute their own field-tested program that follows the spirit, but not the precise letter, of the law. This could set a precedent for others to gain exemptions from government-mandated regulations as long as they accomplish the agency's goal.

In October 2000, William C. Dement, M.D., director of Stanford University's Sleep Disorders Clinic and Research Center, announced results of a fatigue management study involving nine drivers from Dart and Star. According to Dement, the study showed that with proper screening, training and monitoring, these drivers were less sleepy and more alert than their counterparts who strictly followed the hours-of-service rules.

Currently, drivers must be off-duty after driving ten hours. They can't drive again until they've been off-duty for eight hours. In addition, a driver may not drive after being on duty for seventy hours in eight days.

The flaw in this plan, according to Gary Volkman, vp-safety and compliance at Dart, is that drivers may still drive when they're tired because nothing ensures that they're sleeping an appropriate number of hours during their off-duty time. In addition, there's no mechanism for testing driver alertness.

“There's been talk of monitoring hours of service using black boxes,” says Volkman, “but that only tells me when the truck isn't moving. It doesn't tell me anything about the driver.”

The pilot program focuses on allowing drivers to sleep when their biological clocks tell them to. Part of the challenge is training drivers to know when they're tired and getting them to sleep at least eight hours out of twenty-four, as well as to take energizing naps.

Sleep will be monitored using a wristwatch-shaped device strapped to the wrist or ankle that determines if a person is sleeping by checking pulse rate and skin temperature. The program will also compare the alertness of test drivers against those not in the program; accident records will be tracked. Other instruction and training will include diet and exercise plans.

Proponents have high hopes for their proposal. Volkman says the plan will actually lead to greater savings because drivers and companies don't have to keep log books, there will be fewer crashes, better driver retention and a less stressed work force. “We've seen changes in drivers who have been tested. They're not tired, and even their wives have noticed a positive difference in their attitude at home,” Volkman says.

“Companies with this program will have a competitive advantage over those that don't,” says Tony McMahon, president of the Bethesda, MD-based Safety Research Center, who is helping to shepherd the pilot program through FMCSA. McMahon is proposing that 20 drivers each from Dart and Star receive exemptions from HOS regulations to participate in the pilot program. “I expect good results after three months.” After that time, he hopes to add more drivers over a three-year test period.

Both Dart and Star are TL carriers. Star uses about 1,950 independent owner-operator drivers; Star Transit employs 1,025 drivers. All trucks have sleeper berths.

An FMCSA official says the agency has not yet received the carriers' final petition but is receptive to using technology to combat fatigue and increase safety. The next step is for the proposal to be published in the Federal Register and opened to public comment. “If approved, it will be a first for FMCSA — allowing technology to substitute for regulations,” says the official.

“The program places the emphasis where it belongs — on the driver,” says Volkman. “We're very confident that we can manage and combat driver fatigue.”

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