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Politics will get in the way of HOS changes in U.S.

We are constantly reminded of the fast pace of the world around us. The U.S. Congress recently passed legislation governing electronic "signatures". In the transportation industry, advances in technol...

Daniel Joyce
Daniel Joyce

We are constantly reminded of the fast pace of the world around us. The U.S. Congress recently passed legislation governing electronic “signatures”. In the transportation industry, advances in technology have brought the word “logistics” into common parlance, and the use of satellite systems and on-board electronic recorders will refine the area further.

But standing firm amidst all this change is a rule of the old Interstate Commerce Commission that has outlasted the ICC itself. Existing hours of service (HOS) regulations have remained largely intact for more than 60 years, despite frequent review and criticism. It appears that the various perspectives of interested parties – industry groups, drivers, insurance companies, safety groups, enforcement agencies and regulatory agencies – have combined to create gridlock in the legislative process.

The ICC created the first hours of service regulations in 1939. And the fundamental initial rule is still in effect: a driver is limited to 10 hours of driving after eight hours off duty, with a maximum of 60 hours of driving allowed in any seven-day period and 70 hours in any eight-day period. In 1963, the rule was amended so, after eight consecutive hours off duty, a driver couldn’t drive after being on duty for 15 hours.

And so it has remained. However, the rules have been reviewed several times since then. The ICC actually considered updating the rules in the late 1970s, but it didn’t take any action. In 1992, the ICC received more than 68,000 responses to requests for comments on proposed rule changes. But again, no changes were made.

When the ICC’s life came to an end on Dec. 29, 1995, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) – a division of the U.S. Department of Transportation – took over many of its powers. And as part of the ICC Termination Act, the FHWA needed to begin work on new hours of service rules by March 1996, with final rules to be adopted by March 1999.

During that time, the FHWA was completing its landmark seven-year study on commercial motor vehicle driver fatigue and alertness. But that study concluded a variety of factors are involved in driver fatigue, and found that changes in hours of service rules alone will not solve the fatigue problem.

By the end of 1998, the FHWA realized that it had made little progress toward new regulations, and announced its intention to hire “convenors” to serve as facilitators among all interest groups, and the deadline for final rules was pushed back eight months to November 1999.

Postponed deadlines have been a common theme within this regulatory process.

The rule favored by the FHWA was built around a 24-hour day, requiring drivers to be off duty 12 hours in every calendar day. At least 10 hours of the off-duty time must be consecutive. And a rule along those lines was introduced in April 2000, with a 90-day comment period scheduled to end on July 31, 2000.

It was no easy introduction.

Industry groups vigorously criticized it, stating that the proposed rule would be disastrous for the trucking industry, particularly smaller motor carriers. Politics also came into the picture since the secretary of transportation is an appointed member of the president’s cabinet. With a presidential election looming in November – and many changes expected in congressional seats – there is strong opposition at the political level to arrive at a final rule before the November 2000 election and the inauguration of the new president (and selection of a new secretary of transportation) in January 2001.

This June, the secretary of transportation extended the comment period by 90 days, to Oct. 30, hoping to arrive at a final rule before the end of the year. The following week, the U.S. Senate voted unanimously to delay funding to change hours of service rules for one full government fiscal year. This makes hours of service an issue for the next administration.

This vote requires the Department of Transportation to refrain from allocating any portion of its budget to finalizing its hours rules revisions until the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1, 2001. Behind the scenes, there’s a tug of war between those who want action and those who want to put off the decision.

The HOS rules have always been considered to be an integral part of any regulatory safety program, because of the links between driving time and driver fatigue, and between fatigue and accidents. Groups like the Department of Transportation and public safety groups may want prompt action, but it appears the fundamental hours of service structure adopted in 1939 will be with us for at least another year or two. n

– Daniel Joyce can be reached at Hirsch and Joyce, Attorneys at Law, at 716-564-2727.

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