Citizen’s Arrest: Stakeholders await Obama review of new HOS

WASHINGTON — After defending the 2004 hours-of-service rules for the better part of seven years, U.S. federal regulators are just a few months away from unveiling what’s likely going to be a new HOS framework.

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administrationhas reportedly wrapped up its rewrite of the rule and last week sent its proposal to the White House for review.

What the final new rule will look like exactly, no one knows for sure, but the usual coalition of interest groups has some curious suggestions.

The FMCSA should slash the number of hours a driver could be behind the wheel from 11 hours to — hold on, now — eight hours; increase the daily off-duty period from 10 to 12 hours; cap the workday at 12 hours from 14; and expand the sleeper berth to more than eight consecutive hours, states the coalition led by Public Citizen and the Teamsters in a filing to the rulemaking docket.

While some of those recommendations appear, as the trucking industry suggests, to be completely divorced from any understanding of the workings of the North American freight system, carriers shouldn’t completely laugh them off considering that post-Obama regulators are back at the HOS drawing board only in return for the coalition agreeing to put down their swords and suspend ongoing legal assaults.

In an interview with Today’s Trucking, Public Citizen attorney Greg Beck says the recommendations are based on "overwhelming" scientific evidence that crash risk goes up exponentially after the eighth hour of driving.

It’s questionable, though, whether there’s anything overwhelming about Public Citizen’s case, which relies mainly on part of a government study conducted by the University of Pennsylvania that shows relative risk (an estimate of the number of crashes versus vehicle exposure) goes up after the eighth hour of driving.  

Special interests want to turn the clock back on HOS

"But relative risk is not actual risk," says Dave Osiecki, senior vice president of policy and regulatory affairs for American Trucking Associations. "Actual risk in fatigue-related crashes — which are a very small percentage to begin with — when they do happen, occur in the first few hours of driving."

Specific crash data appears to back up that claim. The Trucks Involved in Fatal Accidents” (TIFA) database, which is maintained by the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute, shows that in 2007, nearly 90 percent of the fatal truck collisions occurred within the first eight hours of driving.

As well, a Virginia Tech Transportation Institute study also found that a greater risk for collision exists during the first hour of a trucker’s shift.

Beck, though, finds it all a little absurd. "Common sense tells you that when you drive a long time you get more tired and it’s simply not a higher risk in the first hour, which shows the data they’re relying on is fundamentally flawed."

Common sense, proponents counter, also tells us that fatigue-related crash risk — arguably too thorny to really qualify anyway — should work both ways. If accumulated tireless is a risk factor in the eight-plus hours of driving, than surely sleep inertia can play a role in those early-hour crash stats.

And that’s to say nothing of the parallel between the current HOS rules and the steady fall in truck-involved crashes, injuries, and fatalities in both the U.S. and Canada.

Osiecki admits there’s virtually no clear qualitative evidence to prove the connection, but, he points out, there’s certainly nothing to suggest the contrary because "safety is improving and it’s not at all a stretch to say (the rules) must be working in some way because the experience is markedly better.

"If these groups are truly interested in safety, then they would look at the safety record of the industry under these rules, which is pretty good."

Fact is, reopening the hourglass on HOS arguably won’t keep the government out of a courtroom down the road anyway.

In the unlikely event the FMCSA completely appeases the interest groups, it’s hard to imagine how it could justify radically changing the rules in just a few months after developing them on more than a decade of analysis.

"The agency and DOT would simply be opening themselves up to more litigation," says Osiecki. "On what basis would they do it? "They can’t ignore their own rational justification and understanding of the science that underlies the rules.

"They can’t turn on a dime and say we goofed up six years ago and made all the wrong decisions."

Read more in the August issue of Today’s Trucking

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