HOS countdown

The hours-of-service clock is counting down, with a federal appeals court giving the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) until December 27 to either come up with an acceptable plan to keep the current 11-hour in-service requirement for the nation's truck drivers or return to the pre-2003, 10-hour driving limit. Also at stake is the provision that allows drivers to restart their week

The hours-of-service clock is counting down, with a federal appeals court giving the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) until December 27 to either come up with an acceptable plan to keep the current 11-hour in-service requirement for the nation's truck drivers or return to the pre-2003, 10-hour driving limit. Also at stake is the provision that allows drivers to restart their week after 34 hours off

Truck carriers and other stakeholders are in limbo as FMCSA is running out of options. The agency could decline to offer the court additional arguments and return to the 10-hour clock.

Another choice is to institute an interim final rule, which would not require public comment, an option that many in the industry hope will occur. This would present truck carriers, shippers and others an opportunity to maintain their current schedules and minimize disruptions for a while longer, but does not take FMCSA off the hook. The move might buy more time, but could anger the court if they see it as a way to circumvent their ruling. FMCSA officials have not commented publicly on their plans.

Many stakeholders were hoping that the court would let the current rules stay in force for a longer period. The American Trucking Assns. asked the court for an eight-month stay and FMCSA petitioned the court for a year's delay. They both said that any change in current provisions would require many months of preparation.

Officials of the Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance, for example, told the court that an immediate change in the HOS rules would not allow enough time to retrain safety enforcement personnel. In their petition, CVSA noted: “Thousands of law enforcement officers will need to be retrained which can not be completed easily or quickly.” Shippers also told the court that any quick change would disrupt efficiencies that they enjoyed under the 11-hour schedule. They claimed that just-in-time shipments would be in jeopardy and that companies would be forced to maintain higher inventories.

Carriers such as UPS also made the case that going back to a 10-hour clock would force some fleets to put more vehicles on the road to make up for lost productivity, resulting in more traffic and greater pollution. The court rejected these and other arguments and gave FMCSA 90 days to answer their objections surrounding the issue.

Public Citizen, one of the original parties opposing the 11-hour regulation, was disappointed that the court allowed a delay at all. “We opposed any delay,” said President Joan Claybrook, “but argued that if there was one, it should be no more than 90 days.”

Going back to a 10-hour driving day will hurt productivity, but the exact impact is disputed. Some industry economists suggest that the loss could be as high as 9%, in part because new drivers would have to be hired to make up for lost road miles.

Some Wall Street analysts, however, say that with the overall economy starting to contract, any ill effects might be mitigated. Indeed, at the recent FTR Associates annual Freight Transportation Conference, economists noted that truck ton miles may decline by 2.2% this year and rise only 0.7% in 2008 mainly because of an expected slowdown in consumer spending, the result of the downturn in the housing market.

Some industry pundits are skeptical that cutting one hour off of a driver's driving day will cause large disruptions at all. They point to naysayers who claimed that when the additional hour was added several years ago it would cause major scheduling and driver issues but this was not the case. The changeover went smoothly for most carriers as the industry adapted more quickly than many had predicted.

The real issue is uncertainty, which, the industry hopes will end soon.

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