Zero Hour

If you believe that agreement among federal and provincial transport officials is a sign of a coming apocalypse, rest easy. Yes, it’s true that a task force of regulators has agreed in principle on changes to daily hours-of-work limits for truck drivers-14 hours on duty with no distinction of driving time followed by 10 hours off, and no more four-hour reduction rule.

But when it came to deciding how many hours drivers should be allowed to pile up over a week, the customary squabbles scuttled any chance of consensus.

A recent $6-million, six-year study of truck driver fatigue conducted by the U.S. and Canadian governments offered only a bleary-eyed perspective on what the best cumulative limits should be.

“We couldn’t decide where to draw line,” Brian Orrbine, the Transport Canada policy advisor who leads the task force, told a gathering of the Private Motor Truck Council last month. “The study produced no scientific evidence to back up what any one was saying. Is 60 hours best? 70? All we had was anecdotal material. If the science isn’t there, we need to slow down and wait for the science to catch up.”

That’s why a draft standard to be introduced to the Canadian Council of Motor Transport Administrators in Winnipeg this month advocates no changes to current federal guidelines on cumulative hours: 60 hours in seven days, 70 hours in eight days, and 120 hours in 14 days.

With no further research into the cumulative effects of fatigue on the horizon, those rules are apparently here to stay-and debate over weekly caps is about to heat up again.

As they stand, the rules on weekly limits can be bewildering both to comply with and to enforce. Drivers can jump from cycle to cycle to suit their schedule, and two provinces, Saskatchewan and Alberta, don’t enforce weekly limits at all.

The 120-hour/14-day cycle is a favorite target. It can result in a driver working, for instance, 10 12-hour shifts or nine 13-hour shifts. Facets of the rules that are meant to add flexibility to the system allow drivers to legally rack up 95 hours over seven days-to most people, that’s the stuff of Dickens novels.

On the other hand, dumping the 120-hour schedule altogether could effectively cripple the long-haul trucking business in Canada-or launch the Driver’s Daily Log onto the Globe & Mail best-seller’s list for paperbacks.

The struggle to balance productivity and adequate rest has regulators grasping at any idea that gives off a hint of scientific merit.

One proposal would see the 120-hour/14-day maximum retained and the 60-hour/seven-day and 70-hour/eight-day schedules dropped completely. The hitch is that a driver would have to take two nights off duty any time he racks up more than 42 working hours in seven consecutive days.

This nighttime component is key, since studies indicate that sleep during daylight hours isn’t as restful as sleep at night.

This crops up again in a proposal to actually require two nights off duty-including the day in between-after four straight nighttime driving stints (defined as spanning midnight and 6 a.m.). Again, the science says people become progressively fatigued with each night they work, and need an extra 90 minutes of sleep for each evening shift in order to feel fully rested.

Science and economics don’t always mix, however: a four-night driving cap would cut a driver’s allowable hours in a week to 56 if he were to work a 14/10 daily cycle.

“If you want a schedule with flexibility, the 120-hour cycle is the best option right now, but it’s also the hardest to understand and enforce,” explains Darren Christle, National Safety Code manager with Manitoba Highways and Transportation.

“Futhermore, any cumulative limits you come up with can’t be seen to compromise safety on the highways, nor can they jeopardize the economic viability of the industry. Throw jurisdictional politics into the mix and you see what we’re dealing with.”

Christle says he has another solution, one Manitoba and the other Western provinces seem keen to adopt. After 34 consecutive hours off duty a driver could work 84 hours, adhering to a 14/10 daily schedule. Off-duty time could be split; as long as one rest period is at least eight consecutive hours, with the balance taken in catnap-quick increments of not less than one hour. No period either before or after the split time could exceed 14 hours on duty.

“Simplicity is where the solution lies,” Christle says. “It’s a one-cycle approach, so it’s easy to understand, and it increases the opportunities for rest. I think, I believe, we could live with this.” For long-haulers, the 84-hour schedule over seven days would be a good compromise given another alternative: scrapping the 120-hour cycle in favor of, say, a 70-hour or 60-hour weekly schedule.

But for others, the plan would be a tough sell with the public. “People will look at guys driving 100,000-pound rigs working an 84-hour week and have a very hard time with that,” says Orrbine. “I’m not saying the proposal doesn’t have merit. I’m only saying it makes people in government uneasy.”

Christle doesn’t buy it. “We’ve taken a look at what’s happening in Saskatchewan and Alberta, where they’re allowed to operate 105 hours because there is no weekly cap, and there hasn’t been any marked increase in motor vehicle accidents,” he says. “We incorporated the opportunity for rest and napping periods, and we have a 34-hour block of time that could accommodate two periods of night-rest. The science is there.”

Already, using a four-hour reduction and hopping among the cycles, drivers can legally operate 104 hours in a week, Christle notes. “I’m not even talking about drivers who abuse the system to work longer hours, or who fail to comply either because the rules are too inflexible or are too complex. Those are the things we should feel concerned about.”

“I’m disappointed we couldn’t come to some sort of closure on this,” Orrbine says. “I’m not satisfied with what may be perceived as an incomplete standard, and I know industry won’t be satisfied.”

In the meantime, he says, no one wants to see issues where there is consensus-notably a new daily work-rest standard-delayed any further.

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