Just as we were sending the final pages of this issue to the printer, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit Court dropped a bombshell on the industry. Without warning, the court threw out the new Hours-of-Service rules that had taken so much time, argument and effort to put into place and replaced them with confusion, uncertainty and no clear path to resolution.
No one would claim that the new rules were perfect, but much to everyone's surprise they did seem to be working. For the most part, industry fears of lost revenues and wages have proved overblown. Fleets were able to modify operations to largely offset productivity losses. Drivers didn't see paid miles decrease, and in fact because of shipper response to tighter controls on on-duty hours, they were spending more of that on-duty time driving and less of it waiting for freight.
As for safety — remember, that is the entire purpose of regulation driving hours — we'd only just begun collecting the real-world data that would tell if the new rules were an improvement over the old. It's much too early to tell if they were going to have the intended impact, but the changes they brought to a driver's workday certainly seemed like a major step in the right direction.
If the groups that brought the appeal to the courts were primarily interested in improving truck safety, they had the perfect opportunity to see how the revised HOS rules impacted safety statistics and then come back with suggestions for changes based on solid evidence. Instead, they pushed a political agenda into the courts that holds the revised HOS are bad because they didn't get everything they wanted in the long, contentious rulemaking procedure leading up to their final form.
So now the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration has less than two months to decide how to replace the HOS rules invalidated by the court. They could go back to the old rules, though I don't see how anyone could pretend that that solution would advance truck safety. They could give the critics everything they want, but the economy would suffer terribly from the resulting blow to our freight system efficiency. They could rewrite the rules to meet the court's rather limited objections, but realistically there isn't enough time to even create such rules, no less let fleets put them into action.
My guess at this early stage is that FMCSA will ask the courts for more time to come up with a workable solution. That's the logical next step, but logic hasn't played much of a role in this affair, so it's far from a sure bet at this point.
Whatever happens, the good faith investment trucking made in switching to the revised HOS rules will have to be written off. Just seven months after that relatively smooth transition, the industry now faces more costly confusion created by this new legal vacuum.
Since this is an extremely fluid situation, we'll have to rely on our web site — fleetowner.com — to provide you with up-to-the minute coverage as we all wait and watch for the next move. I can only hope that by our next issue, the news will be much better.