Positive spin

An unconscionable act of judicial interference. (Joan Claybrook, Public Citizen). A common sense legislative fix to a scary scenario that could have caused great damage to the national economy. (Bill Graves, American Trucking Assns.). Those statements cover the range of reactions to a provision inserted in the Surface Transportation Extension Act of 2004, Part V, which was signed by President Bush

An unconscionable act of judicial interference.” (Joan Claybrook, Public Citizen). “A common sense legislative fix to a scary scenario that could have caused great damage to the national economy.” (Bill Graves, American Trucking Assns.).

Those statements cover the range of reactions to a provision inserted in the “Surface Transportation Extension Act of 2004, Part V,” which was signed by President Bush on the last day of September.

This provision ordered that the “new” hours-of-service rules, which went into effect January 4, 2004, remain in effect until “the effective date of a new final rule addressing the issues raised by the July 16, 2004 decision of the United States Court of Appeals…or until September 30, 2005.”

Shippers are also keeping an eye on this controversy, worrying that revised rules could be more onerous. In addition, they're concerned that carrier capacity will be diminished due to predictions of a shrinking pool of eligible truck drivers through 2007.

There's little doubt that a rewrite of the rules will be difficult for the FMCSA. Based on concerns addressed by the court, the agency would be wise to take the following issues into consideration: driver health; extended driving hours; split sleeper berth provisions; 34 hour restart; and on-board recorders.

FMCSA now has less than 11 months to complete its work; if it doesn't, the court could order that the industry revert to the old rules.

Given these developments, some might consider the outlook for the industry to be glum. After all, a re-write of HOS rules could include the following:

  • Fewer hours behind the wheel;

  • Elimination of the split sleeper berth provision for solo drivers;

  • Longer restorative rest catchup periods;

  • Mandatory onboard recorders.

I think it's a mistake to take such a gloomy view. In fact, I think there are many reasons to be optimistic.

First and foremost, our industry is replete with innovative professionals who routinely adapt to change. I remember the late Bob Delaney's accolades when he described our improved supply-chain efficiencies during his “State of the Logistics” news conferences each June. He was referring to our success in fostering improvements that enabled shippers to dramatically reduce inventory. If we need to, I'm sure we'll be able to figure out how to move as much or even more freight under “onerous” hours-of-service rules.

Second, the shipping community has become very receptive to changes that make loading/unloading procedures more efficient. Many shippers are instituting programs to reduce wait times as a way to mitigate freight rate increases that have been brought on by capacity shortfalls among carriers. In addition, fleets now have more leverage since service meltdowns in the railroad sector and continued consolidation of motor carriers have left customers with fewer shipping alternatives.

Third, potential changes to hours-of-service rules could finally improve the dismal quality-of-life issues that have caused so many professional drivers to leave our industry. At age 56, I am a member of the “abused” generation of truck drivers. Floor-loaded freight, long periods away from home, and lack of respect from management were everyday occurrences when I became an owner-operator nearly 30 years ago.

We really have to look on the bright side. Driving a truck is one type of work that cannot be moved off-shore. In addition, the court-ordered HOS rewrite could make driving much more attractive than other lower-paying service sector jobs.

Given this rosy perspective, you could say that Christmas is fast approaching. Let's hope industry leaders realize that the noise in the chimney is Santa Claus, not the ghost of Christmas past. With this spirit, we should embrace this opportunity to re-write the rules and not turn it into a lump of coal.

Jim York is the manager of Zurich Service Corp.'s Risk Engineering Transportation Team, based in Schaumburg, IL.

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