Recent actions by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration have left a few folks scratching their heads. Two initiatives, launched in the past three months, seem to be designed to achieve somewhat contradictory ends. First, an appropriations bill enacted in December contained changes to the federal Hours of Service regulations that control how long a trucker is allowed to drive before stopping for rest. These changes, approved by the FMCSA, were widely viewed as increasing the risk that tired truckers would be behind the wheels of our nation’s big rigs. Proponents, though, argued that the changes would make trucking more profitable, and reduce the number of large commercial trucks driving in urban traffic. In the past few days, however, the FMCSA unveiled another program designed to involve local police in enforcement of federal trucking regulations. Critics of the program complain that it will eat into trucking revenues and add to urban traffic congestion. If both sides are right, where does that leave us?
The hours of service change was something that the commercial trucking industry had lobbied hard for. Trucking companies argued that the “hard restart” rule that went into effect in July, 2013, had not been thought-through, and was reducing productivity by placing more trucks on the road during Monday morning rush hour. The prior regulation required that truckers do a 34-hour “restart” – a period in which they rested and did not drive their rigs – roughly once per week. The objection of the industry was that the rule essentially mandated that a driver get two nights’ sleep during the restart, because it said the restart must include two consecutive periods of 1:00 am to 5:00 am home terminal (down) time. This resulted in a lot of drivers who began their restart period on Saturday being forced to wait until 5:00 o’clock Monday morning before they could get on the road again. In an urban center, the consequence was a bunch of commercial tractor-trailer units being dumped into Monday morning traffic.
The new adjustment to the rule that went into effect December 16, 2014, removes the two-consecutive-night requirement in the 34-hour restart. That particular aspect is suspended from enforcement until at least September 30, 2015, in order for the government to study the effects of the change. Now, a truck driver can return to the road at whatever hour his restart ends naturally. That is, the only requirement is that he must refrain from driving for 34 consecutive hours. When that period ends, so does the disqualification from driving. So, if a trucker begins the restart period early on a Saturday, he will now be able to get back to driving sometime Sunday evening rather than be forced to sit idle until 5:00 am Monday.
The large commercial trucking companies say that the relaxation of the “hard restart” rule will, all by itself, increase their capacity to haul freight by 1 to 3 percent. In an industry of close margins, that can mean the difference between operating at a profit instead of a loss. Opponents of the change do not dispute this. They point out the obvious safety concerns, however, and question whether this boost to productivity will come at the cost of the public’s health and safety. The practical effect of relaxing the restart rule (and allowing drivers to take more than one restart per week – another change) is that drivers can now drive for up to 82 hours in a week, rather than 70. Many experts predict that continued, repetitive 80-hour workweeks by drivers will result in increased accidents due to fatigue.
The other recent initiative by the FMCSA regards enforcement of trucking regulations concerning vehicle safety, drivers’ hours, load weight and security, and other things. The FMCSA announced that, later this month, they would begin to roll out a programintended to train local police officers in the nuts and bolts of federal trucking regulation. The stated goal was to get better coverage of the very large commercial trucking fleet we have in this country, and not count on only state highway patrol departments to manage enforcement. Industry representatives howled at the news. They worried that the local municipalities would see stopping and ticketing truckers for technical violations as a revenue source to be exploited. They also suggested that local cops pulling over trucks on city streets would be a safety concern. In short, they argued that this newest program would undermine or eliminate much of the gains the trucking industry anticipated the new hours of service rule to provide.
While better, more comprehensive, enforcement of safety regulations is a laudable goal, the truckers may have a point here. It doesn’t take a huge imagination to picture some cash-strapped localities targeting truckers to collect a little easy fine money. So the feds should take their time and go step-by-step to roll out the program, making sure the aim is truly only enhancing public safety. If additional enforcement personnel will catch some of the overtired drivers out there, it will do lots of good. We agree with those that worry this relaxation of the restart rule will mean more sleepy drivers at the wheels of big rigs, and additional officers at work boosts our chances of identifying these fatigued drivers. The FMCSA has a balancing act to perform here, obviously. Let’s hope they’ve erred on the side of safety.