Is it science or politics that’s driving hours of work legislation?
February 1, 2012
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...
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 www.supplychaincanada.com to register.