In the Midnight Hour: U.S. HOS Launched

by Diagnostics: Power in the Palm of Your Hands

The sun will rise as usual on Jan. 4, but it certainly will be a brand new day for truckers operating in the United States. That’s when revised hours-of-service rules for commercial truck drivers take effect, culminating a politically charged process that should infuse modern-day practicality to rules that have their genesis in the 1930s. Canadian regulators have watched the process in the United States closely–even participating in an exhaustive study of what makes drivers tired–as they craft parallel standards that could be in place by next fall.

The rules that take effect next month will give truck drivers an extra hour on the road but shorten the working day in two ways. Under the current rule, you cannot drive after 15 hours logged as “on duty” but may actually work longer because time logged as “off duty” is not part of the calculation. With a few exceptions, the new rule stops a driver’s workday 14 hours from when it began, no matter how the time is logged. On the other hand, the new rule allows 11 hours of driving in the 14-hour period, compared to 10 hours in the current rule.

According to the U.S. Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, the overriding goal of the new rules is to prevent fatigue, something the addition to two extra hours of rest in each duty cycle is designed to achieve (10 hours compared to the current eight hours). This cycle of 14 hours of duty and 10 hours of rest set up a 24-hour day, which sleep scientists say is important for keeping drivers alert. However, unlike a proposal floated in 2000, the 24-hour cycle is not mandated–there are elements of the rules that give drivers the flexibility to rest when they need to and bring some scheduling relief to an industry that goes 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

The new rule retains the current limitation on weekly driving hours: either 60 hours in seven days or 70 hours in eight days. In the calculation of weekly hours, a driver may continue the current practice of not counting his daily “off-duty” hours, so he may continue working past 60 or 70 hours, although, again, he may not drive past those limits.

Also in the new rule is a provision that has long been sought by trucking interests: the ability to “restart” the weekly cycle after a set period of rest. Scientists have found that truck drivers tend to build up a “sleep debt” during the course of a work week that cannot be brought back into balance with just one night’s sleep. So the new rule sets 34 hours–enough time for two sleep cycles–as the restart requirement.

There is an important exemption to these limits. When the FMCSA studied the industry it found that short-haul freight operations–whose fatal-accident rate is considerably lower than that of long-haul operations–would suffer economically under a strict 14-hour daily limit. A typical operation in this category would be a regional less-than-truckload carrier whose pickup and delivery drivers regularly have a couple of days a week that are particularly busy. The agency determined that the 14-hour rule would force this segment of the industry to hire at least 48,000 new drivers to provide the same level of service they provide now. So it will allow short-haul and local drivers (i.e. drivers who sleep at home all evenings and who have limited range of operations) one day per workweek when they can work up to 16 hours. The driver may not have taken the exemption within the previous six consecutive days.

In another difference between the final rule and the proposed rule–one Canadians have omitted from their proposed standard–is the decision to stick with current sleeper berth practices. The proposed rule said that only team drivers may split their off-duty time in berths, and the minimum time for each split would be five hours. The current rule allows single and team drivers to split their off-duty time in the berth, provided neither period is less than two hours. Off-duty time is, of course, changed to 10 hours. This exemption is important because it offers a way to make the new 14-hour rule more flexible. Using the sleeper split, for example, a driver who has been kept waiting by a shipper could extend his workday in order to complete his haul.

One thing to remember about the new rules is that they stop a driver’s workday 14 hours from when it began, no matter how the time is logged. This is perhaps a bigger deal than the extra hour of driving, the one less hour of on-duty time, the 10 hours of rest, or the 34-hour restart. “The new hours-of-service rules will have a far bigger impact on trucking than just driver hours,” says Richard P. Schweitzer, legislative and general counsel for the National Private Truck Council (NPTC). “It will especially impact warehouse/distribution centre fleets, both private and for-hire, where it’s been common practice for drivers to log ‘off-duty’ when waiting to be loaded and unloaded.”

A few hours spent loading/unloading or waiting with the truck following a breakdown won’t give the driver more hours to work or drive later in the day. When he reaches 14 hours after going on duty for the day, he’s done.

“The new rules will require better scheduling of rest breaks,” Schweitzer says. “You simply can’t extend 14 hours with ‘off-duty’ breaks, whether team or single driving. Those days are over.”

Drivers will have to change the way they operate. For example, under the current rules, a driver may get up and drive for a couple of hours in the morning then go off duty for an hour and eat breakfast. Come Jan. 4, he’d be better off eating before he goes on duty and keeping his breaks after that to a minimum in order to top out his driving and on-duty time. Paul Penatzer, vice-president of operations for Penske Logistics, says the new 14-hour on-duty time limit should make log auditing a bit easier by ensuring that each driver’s total time, from the start of the day to the end of the day, is captured as on-duty. But from a productivity standpoint, drivers could be required to use nonproductive off-duty time, such as lunch or coffee breaks, as on-duty time.

In the dry van business, the new rules could mean more drop-and-hook operations. Carriers can’t afford to have drivers sitting around waiting to load. If there is a lot of waiting during the day, drivers may end up with substantially less driving time than they have under the current rules.

At Overnite Transportation, spokesman Ira Rosenfeld says the 11 hours of driving time and the 16-hour rule will both be helpful. “The 11 hours of driving time, I think, is going to improve service for a lot of companies. A lot of places where we have two-day service, you are going to end up seeing one-day service.” On the 16-hour rule, he notes that for many trucking companies, there is a surge in business at the end of each week and at the end of each month. Allowing 16 hours on duty one day a week for local drivers will help companies manage that surge.

For private fleets, says NPTC’s Schweitzer, the new rules could be a plus for some and a minus for others. For instance, private fleets where drivers perform many non-driving hours servicing stores (such as snack and beverage distributors) might see some productivity impact because of the reduction of “on-duty” hours. At Praxair, a producer of compressed gases and cryogenic chemicals, a spokesman who asked not to be quoted by name says his private fleet, as a hazmat hauler, insists on compliance with all rules, and that includes driver hours. He says the new 11-hour driving rule might help on a few runs where drivers are an hour short of getting back to their terminals.

“We have drivers who either stay at a motel or at their home when their 10 hours are up and come in the next day. We lose the use of that equipment for 10 hours or more. If drivers can complete their runs safely and legally in that extra hour, we can put a fresh driver on the tanker and start delivering another load.”

But will the rules make the roads safer? Todd Spencer, executive vice-president of the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, says no. “The rules don’t address all of the lost time drivers are required to spend [working] but receive no compensation,” says Spencer, whose group represents about 40,000 owner-operators. He says that because most drivers are paid only for the time they are on the road, they have to drive as many hours as possible to make ends meet.

“As long as we have that situation, compliance will be a challenge regardless of the regulations, and carriers are going to have more turnover than they should because of the working conditions drivers have to contend with. Our safety record will never be as good as it can be.”

The response from safety groups has been almost as vocal.

“We are dumbfounded,” says Daphne Izer, co-chair and founder of Parents Against Tired Truckers, a lobby group. “Without the change in the compensation system, how far is any new hours of service rules or on-board recorders or anything else going to matter?

“Drivers are held up at docks for hours on end and they are not paid for many, many hours. They have to earn a paycheck and feed their families. So long as they are being not paid for all of that time, I don’t think much will change in the industry.”

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