For truckers, it’s the Holy Grail of regulatory reform. Who would not want to see the Hours of Service rules more closely reflect the real world of driving trucks? And what if a more realistic set of regs further improved safety not only for truck drivers, but also the motorists sharing the road with them?
But right now, there is no indication any changes are in the works for HOS rules, on the regulatory or legislative fronts.
Yet that doesn’t mean trucking should shrug off any hope for reform. “If the cup is half full or half empty depends on how you look at it,” contends David Heller, vice president of government affairs for the Truckload Carriers Association. “If by near future, you mean tomorrow or next week, then no, there would be slim hope for Hours of Service reform in the near future.
"However," he continues, "the future in terms of far off is far from bleak. Remember, we, as an industry, are just a few months into an ELD mandate that is already beginning to accurately portray the trial and tribulations of the daily life of truckers. In other words, our drivers’ daily logs are more accurate than they have ever been. That’s highlighting problems such as the 14-hour clock and its inability to stop when taking a break and the ongoing detention problem.
Heller expects these problems, over time, will worsen to the point that the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration will "have to address some of them in order to critically enhance safety performance on our roadways."
Detention time demands attention by FMCSA
He notes that a recent report by the Dept. of Transportation’s Office of Attorney General found that detention time is estimated to increase expected truck crash rates and may reduce driver and carrier income by about $1 billion annually. “If FMCSA turns its cheek on an issue [detention time] that is estimated to increase crash rates, then they would be ignoring the very premise on which the agency was founded-- ‘to prevent commercial motor vehicle-related fatalities and injuries.’”
Heller points out that the issue of fatigue is always part of discussions to change HOS. He says that when it comes to truckload carriers, a key topic is finding ways to incorporate flexibility in the sleeper berth. “The inability to stop the on-duty clock once it starts continues to stymie true productivity and often the results are problematic for drivers. Sure, the short answer is almost always ‘when you get tired, pull off the road and take a nap.’ That being said, the reality is that our driver operates in an 80,000-pound office and that is easier said than done.”
He lays out exactly how time waits for no driver: “If they take a 3 hour cat nap, that reduces their ability to work by three hours, which primarily means that if they were detained at a shipper’s facility for the acceptable amount of time (2 hours), then they are already racing against the clock to just complete their day. That means any opportunity to eat, go to the bathroom, refuel, etc., must be completed at a fast pace so as not to lose out on available work time, to say nothing of the shrinking window for drive time.
Keeping an eye on the sleeper berth
“In a nutshell,” Heller adds, “obtaining greater flexibility in the sleeper berth or advocating for the opportunity to stop that fourteen hour on-duty clock would make a dramatic impact in our drivers’ lives.”
As it happens, FMCSA has been slated to take part in a pilot program to would study the effects of sleeper berth flexibility for some time now, Heller notes. He says as thing stand now, the pilot should start early in 2018 with the majority of the data collection to begin this summer and conclude in summer of 2019.
“It’s important to note that even FMCSA has acknowledged that recent research indicates that the total amount of sleep in a 24-hour period is more important than accumulating sleep in just one period for mitigating fatigue,” notes Heller. “With that in mind, the pilot program is preparing drivers to split their sleep into 2 periods, with each period being than 2 hours. Current hours-of-service rules allow drivers to take 8 hours consolidated sleeper berth time and the additional 2 hours may be taken as off-duty or in sleeper berth time. Of course, neither sleeper berth period will count towards the 14-hour on-duty clock."
He adds that trucking has long advocated for this change "in order to provide our drivers ample time to split up their day to address for detention, traffic, weather or any other obstacle that may impede their ability to deliver freight.”
Will there ever be a sleep apnea rule?
Heller also has a take on where stands any rulemaking to address the impact drivers with sleep apnea may have on safety. “We have been expecting a rulemaking on this for some time now, in hopes of clearing up any ambiguities that surround a Medical Review Officer’s ability to send drivers for sleep-apnea tests.”
However, those ambiguities seem to have spawned yet more uncertainty. “The much larger problem of clearing the [testing] ambiguity up was that it lead to an even greater list of issues that would lead to [ordering] a sleep test,” explains Heller. “FMCSA’s Medical Review Board and its Safety Advisory Committee developed a list of predetermined qualifications that signaled whether or not a driver should be sent for a sleep test. The problem was that the qualifications primarily identified the trucking industry as a whole to be tested, thus eventually falling victim to the Trump administration and its regulatory cuts.”
In the meantime, he points out that trucking as an industry has begun “initiating lifestyle improvements for drivers. Without sounding like an infomercial, fleets across the country have demonstrated their ability to outpace regulations and institute wellness program for their drivers, much like TCA’s Rolling Strong program. Quite frankly, any improvement in lifestyle will circumvent the need for rulemakings on sleep apnea.”