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Is it science or politics that’s driving hours of work legislation?

How many hours should a truck driver be allowed to be behind the wheel? It’s a question critical to our industry yet one we have been unable to answer satisfactorily for all involved – drivers, the carriers who employ them, the labor and professional organizations who represent them and the politicians who legislate them – since we first started discussing it in North America in the midst of the Great Depression.
Not only is the amount of time a person can drive before fatigue sets in a very individualized thing that naturally defies hard rules but any science we can throw at the question is always, unfortunately, caught in the tug of war between the industry need to be more productive and labor’s demand for better working conditions. The two sides often read completely different things into the same research.
Industry media reports of late are full of the criticisms from all sides heaped on the US Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration since it laid out its new rules, which it hopes will go into effect in 2013. While daily driving time was not changed from 11 hours, the maximum hours a driver can work per week was reduced by 12 to an average of 70. The new rules, laid out by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) also require drivers using the 34-hour reset provision to take at least two nights off between 1 a.m. and 5 a.m. According to the FMCSA, research shows that crash risk increases with longer daily and weekly work hours. So it made sense to reduce the number of hours a truck driver should be expected to work because consistently working long hours is associated with chronic fatigue, higher risk of crashes and chronic health problems. But it didn’t make sense, according to the FMCSA, to also reduce the number of hours a driver is allowed to drive in a day because the research did not show a “significant distinction” between the risk associated with working 11 hours versus 10 hours or nine hours.
The Teamsters union and safety advocates, unlike the FMCSA, believe the research shows that additional hour does make a difference in driver safety and health. US carrier executives, although pleased to be keeping the 11 hours of driving time, are not happy about the significant reduction in maximum weekly driving time. Dan England, chair of the American Trucking Associations and chair of C.R. England, believes both the trucking industry and shippers will suffer the impact of reduced productivity and higher costs. England also believes these changes may actually increase truck-involved crashes by forcing trucks to have more interaction with passenger vehicles when the rules require drivers to rest from 1 a.m. to 5 a.m. twice per week. The largest percentage of truck-involved crashes occur between 6 a.m. and noon, so this change will put more trucks on the road during the statistically riskiest time of the day.
The reality is the new hours of service could end up bouncing around US courts for years before anything is resolved. That has been the case since 2003 when the FMCSA initially decided to increase daily driving time to 11 hours. The rule was immediately challenged in court by the Teamsters union and safety advocates. The 11-hour daily driving limit has actually been rejected twice by a federal appeals court yet remains in effect. Further legal challenges are almost a certainty. Gregory Beck, a lawyer representing safety advocates, has already served notice that renewed legal action is possible. And on the other side, Bill Graves, head of the American Trucking Associations has also warned that his members are not happy with the reduction in the driver work week and will be considering legal options.
Since the US government started considering back in 1936 how many hours a truck driver should be behind the wheel, the number of hours has changed from 15 to 12 to 10 and back up to 11 as of 2003. Were those decisions driven by science or by politics?
Aside from the uncertainty created by the constant legal challenges, what should be a concern is the drain on resources this creates both with the government and with motor carriers. Fighting over whether one extra hour of driving actually has a measurable impact on safety takes time and concentration away from other areas – for example, emerging technologies such as lane monitoring or collision avoidance systems – which could have a larger impact on improving truck safety and productivity.
I also hope you will continue the conversation on issues affecting all transportation modes by joining me in the Transportation Track at the upcoming Supply Chain Canada conference, May 8-9, International Centre, Toronto. Go to to register.

Lou Smyrlis

Lou Smyrlis

With more than 25 years of experience reporting on transportation issues, Lou is one of the more recognizable personalities in the industry. An award-winning writer well known for his insightful writing and meticulous market analysis, he is a leading authority on industry trends and statistics.
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4 Comments » for Is it science or politics that’s driving hours of work legislation?
  1. I damn well hope the lawmaking decisions are based on science, but like we all know, it isn’t always the case. My experience is: A driver is going to drive as much as he is allowed to. They do not self regulate at all. They will pee in bottles, take speed, whatever it takes to keep going as much as they are allowed to by law. It is a respectable work ethic, but in the end extremely detrimental to themselves and others.
    If I were to fund something, I would pay the hourly difference to a large trucking company to have there drivers follow a lighter schedule. If accidents go down, post the findings and get some useful legislation passed. I’m no scientist, but this seems easy to do.

  2. Billy says:

    @Truck Chrome Accessories, that is a massively sweeping and uninformed generalization. Judging by the name you are posting under I would be lead to believe you sell such things, is that correct? I can damn well tell you that if that is the case nothing you sell will go on my trucks.
    As for the actually topic it is blatantly obvious that this is all political. The U.S. government caved to the special interest groups instead of defending the last set of rules which all of the real world evidence overwhelmingly shows were working extremely well. The only shortcoming in the last set of rules was taking away the split sleeper birth option. Virtually everyone, who is actually involved in the industry, that made a submission during the public comments said the same thing.
    Certainly this latest round of changes does nothing to enhance safety and as I have read may have the opposite affect, I agree. There is no doubt in my mind that this will serve to drive more experienced drivers out, keep even more perspective new drivers disinclined to pursue truck driving as a career and more quickly discourage those who do start. This will take away more gross income and add to the time a person needs has to spend on the road adding to expenses which extracts from net income.
    This is a totally ill-conceived, counterproductive change to the existing rules and as mentioned already flies in the face of virtually every submission made during the public comments from those such as CVSA, safety professionals, drivers, owner-operators and fleet managers/owners. The retraining costs are going to be massive and there will be no net benefit.

  3. Stephen Large says:

    It is definitely not science! It is ALL politics! No two drivers are the same when it comes to how much sleep or rest they need to be able to be alert! I can tell you that after 28 years and a few million miles on the road, there are times when I could have just slept 8-10 hours after a weekend at ‘rest’ and in the first few hours of driving, I can be very tired and NEED to stop and sleep a bit. There are just as many times when I have worked for weeks at a time, every day, and only get 4-5 hours sleep some nights and be just as alert as ever! I know that most people have varying needs as to how much sleep or ‘rest’ they need, but no politicians, or dispatchers, or police, or safety advocates, or fleet managers, or safety managers can decide when you or I am tired! Only the driver himself knows that! So, the right way to fix the problem is to make sure the driver is being paid a proper wage and for the first few years, have all new drivers get a set of log books, from the government, with 365 pages in them including the date (one page for each day), the driver’s name and address and any other necessary information. The driver would have to keep a log, similar to the current or previous rules, but without the huge, ridiculous fines for trivial ‘form and manner’ violations. (maybe $20-$30 fine for forgetting to mark some stupid thing like ‘day start time’ or ‘trailer unit number’). Then use soft enforcement-making sure it is getting filled out properly, and that the odometer readings are somewhat related to the driving hours shown. When inspecting the driver’s log, perhaps the officer could be of some help in getting the driver to fill out the daily log, rather than use it like the ‘cash cow’ that it has become! If a driver causes an accident or drives into the ditch or wanders from one shoulder to the other (all things that are happening every day anyway-even with the strict regulations), then fine the hell out of the driver, whether or not his log book is legal! After say, a million miles without any fatigue related accidents, give the driver some sort of exemption from the HOS BS! They have figured out what works for them! If you look at the bigger picture, you will find that the log book is never going to prevent fatigue! If you want to know how to deal with fatigue, ask a driver who has been out on the road for 20,30,40 years or more! I have seen guys still driving their 30+ year old Kenworth (still with it’s original front bumper intact) and I personally know several guys who have driven 2,3,4+ million miles successfully and are still doing it every day! Ask those guys how to deal with fatigue because they KNOW!

  4. B.J P says:

    As a recently retired professional driver(forced out when I got tired of spending upwards of a weeks pay each year to keep my CDL)
    I have run both the old and new HOS,and cannot see where the 2 half hour rest periods will cause a problem they have been part of the Can HOS Alberta for years, and can be worked in as meal breaks, as for including 2 periods from 1 to 5 am in the reset these are covered on a weekend EG: Friday 6pm to Sun 6am will cover them or they can be worked into a reset onthe road.
    Time management has always been the downfall of a lot of drivers & companies but I found that working for a large well run company is usually a good idea.I remember what it was like to be “run to death” by companies that expected 20 hr days I’m glad they are gone. Trucking will never be an exact science but thats what makes it a “lifestyle not a job”
    Perhaps if the good folks at Truck News spent as much time defendiing the rights of senior drivers in Ontario there would be more of us out there doing what we spent over half our life perfecting.

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