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HOS flexibility: Why it’s secondary to more urgent driver concerns

A trucking industry expert’s views on why DOT’s looming ruling isn’t a big deal.

Editor's note: This is the second part of a story about the FMCSA’s request for comments on its proposal to change hours-of-service rules. Read Part 1 here.

To Steve Viscelli, it’s a classic case of putting the trailer before the tractor.

The Department of Transportation’s (DOT) anticipated upcoming ruling to ease hours of service (HOS) restrictions may be all well and good in theory, he told Fleet Owner, but truckers need more vital changes made to how the industry operates for there to be real and lasting progress toward keeping current drivers content and recruiting young ones.

“Hours of service are not the problem and they are not the solution to the problem,” he said. “The problem is that drivers’ non-driving time is free. Customers and carriers use it inefficiently and drivers lack any power to change it.”

A Ph.D., sociologist and author of The Big Rig: Trucking & the Decline of the American Dream, Viscelli spent over a decade studying the industry and interviewing truckers. He is a Senior Fellow at the Kleinman Center for Energy Policy at the University of Pennsylvania. He obtained a CDL and drove full-time for six months to experience a driver’s life.

While his hauling days are long over, Viscelli feels that trucker problems are the same as ever. It frustrates him when he sees what he considers the wrong issues getting attention from the top levels of government.

“Hours of service can’t fix the problem, which is that too much drivers’ time is wasted,” he said. “What HOS does is attempt to put limits on the strategies drivers use. They could ultimately provide a foundation for a solution, however, by accurately recording time and thus allowing it to be priced accurately.

“Drivers should be paid minimum wage, at least, 24 hours a day (when on the job but not driving), as the Department of Labor’s rules suggest. This may require an industry-wide charge for truck time at a customer location.

“What would a solution look like? It will vary, but how about more pre-loaded trailers, more regular lanes, more accountability for shippers for accurate load times, and more use of technology to efficiently dispatch drivers? Again, if the cost of driver labor is zero for much of the day, these changes are less likely to happen.”

Viscelli mocked the idea that more HOS flexibility was going to make any kind of difference in most drivers’ lives, while acknowledging that computing hours on the job was an inexact science at best.

“There is always going to be some degree of uncertainty due to weather and traffic, though these are less unpredictable in the near term than is often suggested,” he explained. “Weather forecasts are more than good enough to plan around, and most traffic is either predictable or only costs drivers an hour or two. There are rare - once every few months – issues where drivers need ‘flexibility’ to complete loads that were delayed.

“The vast majority of the lack of control to schedule work is routine, not an aberration. The goal of the system is to squeeze as many miles out of a truck in a day as possible. Ultimately the limitations on that are loading and unloading times and the human behind the wheel.

“The system works better for customers and carriers at the expense of drivers. The cost of wasting drivers is borne primarily by the drivers. Firms don’t pay fully and directly for it, so it isn’t fully valued. Customers delay drivers to make more efficient use of their docks, warehouses and labor because they don’t pay for driver time. Carriers dispatch drivers in accordance with customer behavior and without full regard for the costs to the drivers.”

The HOS positives

Viscelli isn’t against all aspects of HOS. Adhered to properly, and in conjunction with other issues needing to be addressed, HOS utilization can be invaluable.

“Hours of service can make the industry safer,” he admitted. “Ultimately, trained, experienced drivers would have the ability to control their work without feeling like they need to drive tired to pay the bills. That may sound like wishy-washy talk but go talk to experienced drivers with good jobs and they will tell you that nothing is more important than safety, and that they know their limits.

“The problem is ultimately that drivers are powerless, and customers and carriers regularly put the most vulnerable ones in the position where they must choose between rest and their paycheck. That is the problem HOS must address. The 14-hour rule now forces drivers to cram more work into the 14-hour window, potentially causing them to work tired and cut corners.”

Viscelli still talks to drivers on a regular basis, and they give him the lowdown on what’s real and what’s fake. As far as ELDs solving ‘time cheating’ issues? Fake. So DOT moving on to HOS specifics isn’t the best timing.

“The idea that the typical OTR driver works between 8 and 9 hours a day – which is what HOS suggest – is still laughable,” said Viscelli. “ELDs did not end log falsification. Drivers still routinely falsify logs. They just can’t do it as easily for driving time. They can use slow speed driving, what some call ‘yard moves’ but basically is anything that is below a speed and time threshold and is not captured by many (ELD) systems.

“They can and do edit their logs to recode work time as non-work time, hiding large amounts of work time that is non-driving. Ultimately drivers can work dozens of hours in excess of what is legal by underreporting lots of non-driving time.

“How much time is not getting reported? Lots. Drivers are limited to 60 hours over 7 days. Many easily work over 80. Some still work 100 or more. As long as drivers aren’t paid for non-driving work, they will undercount those hours.”

So many drivers driving or working so many hours due to the industry not valuing their time could actually render more HOS flexibility a bad thing, stressed Viscelli.

“Ultimately, the failure to deal with driver fatigue will lead to the introduction of more regulation and technology,” he noted. “There are already systems that monitor driver fatigue via the truck’s movements or the drivers themselves, by using driver-facing cameras. With forward collision avoidance, lane maintenance and driver fatigue monitoring we will be able to prevent many more serious accidents, but it will be hell for drivers’ health and paychecks. Forty years of history suggests that if there is a price to be paid, drivers will pay most of it.”

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