Trucks at Work

Hours, safety, and sense

“Never give in: Never, never, never, never, in nothing great or small, large or petty. Never give in except to convictions of honor and good sense.” -Winston Churchill

So the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) is going to stick with the 11-hour driving time limit and 34-hour restart provisions that got thrown out by the U.S. District Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit back on July 24. Not much of a surprise there, for the agency long thought these two parts of the revised hours of service (HOS) legislation it put in place back in 2004 worked well for truckers. And it‘s prepared to go to the mat for them, too.

“The people who have litigated in the past against these rules will most likely do so again,” John Hill, FMCSA‘s chief administrator, said in a phone conference with reporters this week. “We are prepared to go to court to defend these rules.”

And to court they shall be going, I guarantee you, for the rhetoric is already thick and heavy in the air over this.

“FMCSA is continuing to allow large trucks to roll like time bombs on our highways,” said Joan Claybrook, president of Public Citizen, in a press release responding to the agency‘s decision. “With its action today, the administration has shown that it is willing to risk carnage on the highways to boost the bottom line for big corporations. We urge the agency to draft a rule based on science instead of industry politics - a rule that will protect truck drivers and those of us who share the road with them. To do otherwise is the height of insanity.”

“It‘s clear the Bush administration has more loyalty to its corporate supporters than to the men and women who actually drive on our roads,” said James Hoffa, the Teamsters‘ general president, in a similar statement. “The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration in particular is showing that it is held captive by the trucking industry.”

OK, so we all know these rules are incredibly divisive ... but are they truly unsafe? At the end of the day, do they make more sense than the old rules?

I asked a couple of longtime industry veterans this question and here are some of their thoughts.

“In regard to highway safety, while I don‘t believe the rules will do anything to make the industry less safe, more needs to be done by both trucking management and their customers to encourage practices that will ensure drivers are better rested,” said David Sparkman, a veteran journalist and public relations expert that‘s covered trucking for decades. “That should be a factor for consideration at a time when more exacting demand-driven supply chains are rapidly reshaping drivers‘ daily reality.”

So I looked at some of the safety statistics compiled by the Feds used to support their contention that the 11-hour drive time limit and 34-restart provisions don‘t lead to unsafe driving conditions.

For starters, truck-involved fatalities decreased 4.7% last year - from 5,240 in 2005 to 4,995 in 2006, the largest percentage drop in truck-involved fatalities since 1992 - and the number of truck-involved-crash injuries decreased by almost 2,000 in 2005 and dropped another 8,000 in 2006. Over the last seven years, the fatality rate per 100 million miles dropped 13% - so at a time when trucks are logging more and more miles on the rate, fewer people are being killed.

Bob Inderbitzen, another industry veteran and long-time safety expert, added that there are a lot more positives than negatives in these revised rules - positives that many are ignoring.

“The best change is that you can no longer abuse drivers and put them off the clock even though they are still responsible for the vehicle - waiting in line, waiting to unload, etc.,” he told me. “We are also closer now to a 24-hour clock which matches the circadian rhythm of human beings [14 on and 10 off] and I also like the 34-hour restart since it allows a ‘weekend effect‘ of two full rest/sleep periods that also ... allows you to bring a driver home after a restart.”

Inderbitzen also believes that safety rates are improving precisely because of the HOS change. “You have to communicate with drivers, run some training sessions, provide logbook examples, and generally pay more attention to them than you might have been doing,” he explained. “Even an owner-operator had to study the changes, to see what effect they had on his/her business and adjust accordingly. All these things help to refocus on safety and take people out of their routines and comfort zones. Call it a wake up call, if you will; but I believe awareness is heightened when you are adjusting to change.”

He added that the benefits of this “wake up call” are being felt especially with new drivers. “If you select well, a new driver is usually safe for the first 18 months to two years while getting used to the new company, new routes, new products, new supervisors, and much more. Then, as things get more routine, accidents would start to happen,” Inderbitzen said. “It is no accident - pun intended - that HAZMAT retraining is required every three years. It keeps drivers on their toes.”

Here‘s what really gets me about the war of words and legal challenges over HOS today: the so-called safety advocates got 90% of what they wanted when the feds revised the regulations.

Under the old rules, a driver looked at a 15-hour workday that could be indefinitely extended by logging breaks. Now, they work a 14-hour day - one hour shorter than before - and the clock CANNOT be stopped. Drivers used to face five hours of non-driving on-duty time - now they only face three. They used to get just eight hours off; now they get 10, a full two hours more. But by just adding one extra hour of drive time, going from 10 to 11, the so-called safety groups are willing to throw the whole smash out and go back to the old rules - rules created way back in 1933, when they didn‘t even conduct sleep studies, much less envision global supply chains.

Many drivers aren‘t happy with the revised rules because they feel they can‘t take a break: that with the clock running, they need to drive or risk losing pay if they stop for a rest break. FMCSA‘s John Hill is aware of this - I asked him about it and he said the agency would address it once they get some sort of finality to the basic HOS rules. “We must have a final framework in place before we start looking at breaks,” he told me. “So our focus right now is getting a final rule done.”

Still, to my mind at least, the HOS rules the industry is working under right now seem to be working - they provide good building blocks from which improvements to the driver‘s working life can be made. “I know there has been a lot of rhetoric around one size not fitting all, but I think there is enough flexibility to satisfy most: You‘ll never get them all,” said Inderbitzen. “And I agree - [fatality and injury] rates are going down. I don't think you can argue with success.”