Everyone wants hours-of-service revision to go away. No one, not the government, not the fleets, not the industry's lobbying groups, wants to open this can of worms. The issue is too complicated, the solutions too difficult, the potential effects too large.
The problem is that current HOS regulations don't work. And try as hard as we can to ignore the issue, everyone knows that as well.
The entire purpose of regulating a truck driver's working hours is to keep fatigued drivers off the road. Drivers nodding off at the wheel probably account for a relatively small percentage of heavy-truck accidents — around 10% according to some recent studies.
Yet such accidents are also the ones with the most fatalities and the highest costs. These are the accidents where the driver hits a stopped vehicle or crosses into oncoming traffic without ever hitting the brakes. For longhaul fleets, the cost of fatigue-related accidents is estimated to be a whopping 1% to 2% of revenue.
When the current HOS regulations were set in 1938, they were a best-guess attempt to deal with driver fatigue, and not bad as guesses go.
However, in the last 64 years we're learned a bit about sleep patterns and the human ability, or inability, to handle shifting work schedules. And what we've learned tells us that the current system is deeply flawed if our goal is keeping tired drivers out from behind the wheel of a truck.
The main problem is that obeying the current regulations ties a longhaul driver to an 18-hour. work pattern — ten hours on followed by eight hours off. Science has found incontrovertible proof that the human body is hardwired to a 24-hour cycle. Drivers trying to remain legal and still get in their maximum hours will shift their workday backwards by six hours every day. In other words, drivers can go three or four days without getting eight hours of sleep during the night.
While that may be perfectly legal according to HOS requirements, it's all wrong according to our body's requirements. If we don't sleep at night, we begin to accumulate “sleep debt” because we're not sleeping as well nor as long during the daylight hours when our body is programmed to be awake. And under the current rules, drivers can push themselves into deeper and deeper sleep debt for seven or eight days before they hit the mandatory 24-hour off-duty period.
That's only the most obvious problem with current “just count the hours” service rules. Sleep research has also shown that all hours aren't created equal when it comes to fatigue. Driving at night is more tiring for most people than driving during the day. Time spent napping can either help or hurt combat fatigue.
And as any early bird who's tried to live with an owl can tell you, individuals have wide variations in their normal sleep patterns that can't be addressed by a single, fixed hours-of-service formula.
If the system is so obviously out of step with reality, why haven't we fixed it yet?
Next month, the fear of change that keeps trucking tied to a broken system.