First FMCSA ”listening session” hears HOS pros, cons

ARLINGTON, VA. Motor carriers, truck drivers, safety groups, and other interested parties presented their critiques of the current hours of service (HOS) regulations to a panel of Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) officials here yesterday. The meeting was the first of four “listening sessions” to be held by the agency as it begins its third effort in 10 years to reform the work rules governing trucking operations in the U.S. (See photos from the meeting)

Anne Ferro, the newly installed Administrator of FMCSA, who was on hand at the beginning of the eight-hour listening session, stressed to those gathered in person and listening in via audio webcast that she wanted “to receive as many comments as possible” about the current rules – “the good, the bad, and the ugly,” in her words. (View Videos from the meeting Pt. 1 Pt. 2)

“We want comments from the general public, safety advocates, owner-operators, drivers, and motor carriers – we want to hear from everybody, including [law] enforcement and government officials,” Ferro said.

“I take seriously the absolute obligation we have as a federal agency to develop an hours of service rule that mirrors our three core priorities,” said Ferro. “First, to raise the bar to entry to the motor [carrier] industry; second, maintaining high [safety] standards to stay in the industry; and third, to remove high- risk operators from our roads and highways. Those three core priorities really frame what we are doing.”

Several top FMCSA officials guided the listening session; Larry Minor, Associate Administrator for policy & program development; Tom Yager, Chief of the driver and carrier operations division; and Alais Griffin, Chief Legal Counsel.

Most of the speakers representing motor carriers and drivers were in favor of keeping the current HOS rules – a 14 hour workday, with a maximum 11 hours of drive time and 3 hours for loading/unloading, followed by a 10-hour off-duty period. The current rules also limit drivers to 60/70 hours on duty in 7/8 consecutive days. They then may restart their 7/8 consecutive day period after taking 34 or more consecutive hours off duty – also known as the “34-hour restart” provision.

That being said, fleets, drivers, and association executives speaking at the session suggested many changes be made to the current HOS rules – especially in terms of revising the “split sleeper berth provision” that dictates drivers take at least two consecutive hours in the sleeper berth, plus a separate two consecutive hours either in the sleeper berth, off duty, or any combination of the two.

Safety groups attending, however, strongly condemned the current HOS rules and want to have them thrown out – though under questioning by FMCSA officials, representatives of those groups did not offer any specific alternatives.

“It is appalling that well into the 21st century we still use truck drivers like 19th century sweat shop workers,” said Jerry Donaldson, senior research director of the Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety. “The agency is moving in the wrong direction with these rules [and] the conclusions upon which it relied upon to formulate them are problematic. It’s been repeatedly shown that longer working hours lead to serious performance errors. Increased flexibility is not an answer for fatigue or helps protect the health and safety of truck drivers; only reduced works hours do.”

Though Donaldson stated his group would like to see a reduction in both drive time and overall working hours for truck drivers, under questioning by FMCSA’s Minor, he did not offer an alternative. “We’re not prepared to give specific proposals at this time,” he said.

Lena Pons, a policy analyst with Public Citizen, also declined to offer a specific alternative to the current HOS regulations, though she, too, called for fewer driving hours and a shorter working day for truckers. “We must consider all the costs of these rules, but especially the health effects on drivers,” she said. “Clearly, these rules are a significant detriment to their health.”

Public Citizen is on record with an alternative, however, voiced by its former president Joan Claybrook. Claybrook laid out her vision of HOS reform five years ago at a “Sorrow to Strength” press conference in Washington DC, calling for much stricter limits on driver hours. “I'd have truckers drive eight hours, not 10 or 11,” Claybrook said at the time. “I’d have them on a circadian rhythm, with a 24-hour cycle, and knock out the 34-hour restart.”

Yet trucking industry representatives contend that the current HOS rules are actually contributing to major improvements in highway safety. David Osiecki, vp-safety & operations for the American Trucking Assns. (ATA), said the current rules are largely a success in terms of balancing safety and operation efficiency.

He noted that between 2004 – when the current HOS rules went into effect – and 2008, truck-car crash fatalities declined 19%, truck occupant fatalities in crashes dropped 16%, and truck-car crash related injuries fell 21%. "Based on this record of highway safety, the current rules should be retained," Osiecki said.

Indeed, according to data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) large truck fatalities declined to 4,808 in 2007 – the lowest large truck fatality rate since 1992, and saw a 4.4% decrease from 2006. Fatalities in large truck crashes also dropped for three years in a row, from 5,240 in 2005 to 4,808 in 2007, a total decline of 8.2%. Injuries are down as well, dropping to 101,000 in 2007 – a 4.7% reduction since 2006 and a big decline from a peak of 142,000 injuries in 1999.

Fatal truck crash rates are way down as well, according to FMCSA data, dropping to 4,190 fatal crashes in 2007; the lowest number since 1993 and a 3.7% decrease from 2006. Large truck fatal crashes have dropped from 4,551 in 2005 to 4,190 in 2007 for a total decline of 7.9%, according to agency figures.

"This is a remarkable decrease in trucking-related fatalities – we've never had movement in the numbers like that,” said David Owen, president of the National Association of Small Trucking Companies. “The current rules, while not perfect, have a good track record and are headed in the right direction.”

Trucking companies large and small are particularly concerned that a wholesale change to the current rules would result in more costs to their operations.

Richard Reiser, executive vp & general counsel for truckload carrier Werner Enterprises, said his company spent $2 million to get its operations in compliance ahead of the implementation of the current HOS rules back in 2004.

Christopher Peters, vp-operations for Carlisle Carrier Corp. – a regional trucking operation with an average 170-mile length of haul – noted the HOS changes in 2004 actually hurt his company, resulting in a 6% to 9% reduction in miles. “Thus, we had to add 6% to 9% more trucks to just maintain our current level of business,” he noted. “As a result, our trailer–to-tractor ratio increased from 3-to-1 to 4-to-1. That added a lot of cost to our bottom line.”

Marsha Vande Hei, director of regulatory compliance for truckload carrier Schneider National took a different tact entirely . She stressed to the FMCSA panel that dealing with sleep disorders, not changing HOS rules per se, should be the agency's primary focus.

"Fatigue management is a much more broad-based concern," Vande Hei said. "It's estimated that 28% of the truck driver population suffers from sleep disorders. Among Schneider's drivers, we estimate 17% have some sort of sleep disorder."

While Vande Hei said Schneider supports the current rules, she said the carrier would like to see more focus placed on the impact of sleep disorders.

In the end, Steve Keppler, interim executive director for the Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance (CVSA), voiced a widespread feeling among the attendees that any revision of HOS regulations "need clarity, brevity, and to be simple and practical" to work effectively. “Whatever decision is made with these rules, please keep them in place,” he stressed. “Constantly changing the rules creates challenges with consistency and uniformity in compliance and enforcement.”

FMCSA said it plans to hold three other public listening sessions on its HOS reform effort: Friday, January 22, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. at the Hyatt Regency Dallas Forth Worth Airport; Monday, January 25, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. at the Doubletree Hotel Los Angeles International Airport; and Tuesday, January 28, from 1 p.m. to 9 p.m. at the Comfort Inn Hotel and Suites in Davenport, IA, within walking distance of a Flying J Travel Plaza and located near the Iowa 80 Truckstop.

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