For all the fretting and hand-wringing, and for the hundreds of thousands of dollars spent on listening sessions and research and fact finding, what we got from the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration on Dec. 23 is a farce disguised as a proposed hours of service rule.
Truckers who work at night might as well kiss the 34-hour restart goodbye.
Truckers who work at night might as well kiss the 34-hour restart goodbye.

It's nothing short of an attempt to placate both sides in a debate, rather than a soundly constructed rule designed to improve highway safety. We know trucking is unhappy with it. As of this writing on Dec. 27, we have yet to hear from organized labor or the safety advocates, but I can see little in the proposal that will please them, either.

This tiresome exercise was about attempting to put a stop to the litigation over the 2004 HOS rules, but if the rule passes as published, I'm betting we'll be back in court within a year. There isn't enough there to keep the safety people out of court, and trucking will probably head to court to reverse the burdensome mess FMCSA is now attempting to foist on us.

The saddest part of all this, is that it's 100 percent about politics, zero percent about safety and productivity. An Albert Einstein quote comes to mind.

"All of us who are concerned for peace and triumph of reason and justice must be keenly aware how small an influence reason and honest good will exert upon events in the political field."

But I digress.

Fortunately for trucking, the weight of evidence is on our side. Since the current rules have been in place, our safety record has improved dramatically. I doubt that HOS can take all the credit there, but there has to be some connection. It'll be difficult for FMCSA to argue that the 2004 rules need fixing. And the political debts owed to labor, Public Citizen and the rest won't make a very strong case in court.

Sure, the current rule isn't perfect, but I think it's as close as we have ever come. All through the listening sessions, the overwhelming message coming from drivers was that the only real change needed to help them drive more safely was more flexibility in taking rest breaks.

So what does FMCSA do? It grants a one-hour opportunity for stopped-clock rest, and then wraps it up in all kinds of requirements and stipulations.

The Large Print Giveth; the Small Print Taketh Away

Requiring a 30-minute rest at some point up to halfway into the work shift isn't a bad idea, but it will create challenges for some drivers in finding a suitable place to stop in time -- like those peddling freight in a big city. Rather than encourage drivers to rest at opportune time, the proposed rule will force drivers to stop at times and places where it might be dangerous and even illegal to do so.

Changes to the restart mechanism are overly complex, and will for the most part leave drivers pretty much where they were prior to 2004, except for the minefield the agency has created for drivers trying to log a restart legally.

Still absent at this point is a limit to the number of hours a driver may drive in a day. FMCSA is backed deliciously into a corner on this one. The agency is on record as favoring a 10-hour limit, but has utterly no grounds for doing so except to appease its pals and political cronies. The record speaks for itself. The current rules -- a maximum of 11 hours of driving within a 14-hour window, following a minimum of 10 hours off duty -- work. They have proven safe, they are productive, and there's little justification for changing them. Except that if the length of the driving shift isn't changed, FMCSA will be dragged back into court by their former pals (with friends like those, who needs enemies).

What I see in this proposal is a plethora of potential new violations with very little in the way of real safety benefits. It will, as ATA has already pointed out, simply limit productivity without enhancing driver health or safety, or contributing to any meaningful improvement in highway safety.

And if all the above isn't bad enough, FMCSA dumped this on us Dec. 23 -- which comes as no surprise, really. I had predicted we'd see it late on the 24th, when the newsrooms were emptying for the Christmas break. It probably popped out on Thursday because there would have been nobody at the agency on Friday to press the button.