The HOS fracas

Oct. 4, 2007
"When the situation was manageable it was neglected, and now that it is thoroughly out of hand, we apply too late the remedies which might have affected a cure. There is nothing new in this story. It is as old as the Sibylline books. It falls into that ...

"When the situation was manageable it was neglected, and now that it is thoroughly out of hand, we apply too late the remedies which might have affected a cure. There is nothing new in this story. It is as old as the Sibylline books. It falls into that long dismal catalogue of the fruitlessness of experience and the confirmed unteachability of mankind." -- Winston Churchill.

So, here we are, staring at a three month window within which the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) must come up with rules to replace the soon-to-be-extinct 11-hour daily driving limit and 34-hour retart provision of current hours of service (HOS) regulations. Hopefully, the new rules won't make an appearance at the 11th hour on the 11th day (Dec. 27) when those provisions expire as ruled by the U.S. Courth of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. Then again, the way things have been going in trucking lately, anything is possible.

Take current HOS rules. These actually represent FMCSA's 'Plan B' package because its first attempt at reform back in 2000 by creating five DIFFERENT sets of HOS rules died a fast and ugly death, forcing the agency to cobble together something on the fly. The trucking industry initally cried woe and doom when the 'Plan B' rules were announced in 2003, saying they'd ruin productivity, efficiency, yadda, yadda, yadda. Yet here we are at the end of a long battle by the industry to KEEP the parts of those very same rules it didn't like the first time around.

So-called safety groups such as Public Citizen never liked any of the HOS reforms FMCSA formulated right from the start and waged a long -- and ultimately successful -- campaign in the courts to oust these rules, and will no doubt gear up again to fight whatever FMCSA comes up with as a replacement. Joan Claybrook, former head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and president of Public Citizen since 1982, has publicly stated that she wants driving time for truck drivers dialed back to eight hours a day maximum. So it's a good bet she'll fight tooth and nail against anything over that number.

All of this back and forth, of course, directly impacts an industry responsible for moving 80% of the nation's freight. That's a cold fact that doesn't seem to resonate at all with anyone outside transportation. Look at just some of the issues affecting the trucker's workday.

For starters, there aren't enough truck drivers to haul all that freight -- we're short 20,000 a year now, but by 2015 that'll be up to about 100,000 annually. Massive congestion on our roadways is slowing down freight, killing the miles drivers need to accrue to get paid -- and their pay, by the way, ain't good for the work they do. Then throw in the shippers and receivers, who make trucks wait for hours and hours, then force many drivers to load and unload trailers without adequate compenstation -- something Public Citizen never addresses in its safety efforts, by the way.

Here's what I think: let's get radical. Let's go ahead an lobby for an eight hour drive-time limit, with a 10-hour on-duty period. Make it part of the regulations that drivers CANNOT load and unload their trailers, period. Mandate fines for shippers and receivers that make trucks wait more than two hours -- say, $1,500 an hour. Maybe $2,000 an hour. Since we're tracking trucks by satellite and cellular networks today, that clock would be easy to monitor, too. Also restore the split-sleeper berth provision to drivers so they can take a break.

Now, everyone with say 'This is impossible: are you crazy??!!" No, it's not impossible -- fleets will need to recalculate their routes, of course, as well as driver pay rates. But it can be done -- shippers and receivers will see their freight bills skyrocket, of course, but hey! They'll adjust. So will we, the consumers. Everything will cost more, efficiency will suffer, but the world won't collapse -- and trucking will be allowed to do its work, without all the regulatory back and forth.

I mean, what's to argue? The safety groups WANT these kinds of work hours established -- I say give it to them. And let them do the fixing if it boomerangs. As long as the industry keeps improving its safety profile, makes a decent profit and drivers make a living, that's what matters .

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