With the help of data from the now-mandatory electronic logging devices, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration is fast-tracking some changes to the hours-of-service rules that many in trucking have been asking for, and one of those is bringing back the so-called split sleeper berth provision from the previous HOS regulation.
However, one fleet owner, a fierce advocate of mandatory electronic logs and preventing driver fatigue, believes that doing so will be a step backwards when it comes to safety. And I think he has some good points.
Steve Rush is president of Carbon Express, a smallish New Jersey-based tanker fleet. He’s active in groups like the American Trucking Associations and the National Tank Truck Carriers, was honored as an HDT Truck Fleet Innovator in 2015, and is a member of HDT’s Editorial Advisory Board.
Rush has made no secret that when he was an owner-operator, and in his early years as a fleet owner, he regularly cheated on hours of service. But he saw the light when he realized that electronic logs could help improve safety and working conditions for drivers.
“As a profound cheater, I believe the adage that it takes a thief to catch a thief fits here,” Rush told me in a recent email. And he believes that bringing back the split sleeper berth for single drivers will allow drivers to cheat on their logs and compromise safety. Even if used legally, it will not give drivers the kind of restorative sleep they need, he says.
How the Split Sleeper Could Lead to Fatigued Drivers
When the latest hours of service changes were implemented, Rush told me, “I realized that with the running clock that the daily HOS could not be tampered with at all, but the 70-hour week could be. The absolute key to the success and the safety of all drivers is that running clock. If they change that by allowing split sleeper berths for drivers, then the clever truckers will be right back where we just came from. The greedy owners along with the shippers and receivers will have their way, and it will be all back on the drivers again to cheat, because now the day can be extended along with the 70-hour week.”
As the rules currently are, Rush explains, if a driver shows off-duty not driving when he arrives at a shipper, or if he shows off-duty not driving if he breaks down for two hours, that daily “running” clock remains the same.
“Any time he pulls away from driving or on-duty not driving, even though he is loading or offloading, he extends his 70-hour week. Prior to changing our pay formula here, we had to constantly monitor this with just about every driver. The good ones could get sometimes as much as 30 more hours a week.
“If they allow split sleeper berth for single drivers it could be even worse, because now the running daily clock is off and added to the way the 70 hours can be manipulated.”
Rush shared an example of a driver who started his day in Louisville, Kentucky, after a 12-hour break. He started his day at 6 a.m., before picking up the first part of his load at seven a.m., which took two hours, then drove to Indianapolis about two hours away to finish loading. He was held up there for five hours, so he departed the plant at 4 p.m., 10 hours after he first began his day, drove until 8 p.m., and shut down for the day. A long 14 hours. If he had been allowed to use the sleeper berth for those hours in the plant, Rush says, he could have driven until 1 a.m. the next day – or into his 19th hour from the time he started.
Now there aren't any changes officially proposed yet, so I'm not sure if Rush's scenario here is correct or not. For one thing, there aren't two sleeper periods that add up to 10 hours. But I think the bigger point is, countless research studies have shown that interrupted sleep like that is just not as good as getting eight hours at one time, which is why the split sleeper berth rules were changed in the first place to only allow an 8-and-2-hour split.
“Let’s be honest – he may have laid down in his bunk at the plant, but not until he had checked in, parked the truck, then when they were ready to load him, climb out of the bunk and move the truck to the loading point, or use the rest room – and all of this in a busy plant with noises etc. keeping him from getting any real rest.”
On top of that, he says, after having been on duty only about five hours before going into the sleeper, this driver likely wouldn’t have been able to actually sleep.
“That kind of pattern would exhaust anyone except an old-time driver who has trained himself to zombie drive,” Rush says. “This industry has got to get off the back of these folks who drive our trucks and work in the most dangerous environment in the world. The answer is not split sleeper berth! The answer is to plan better, and if traffic delays slow us down, charge more or find an alternative route.”
But What About the ATRI study?
Earlier this year, the American Transportation Research Institute, the research arm of the American Trucking Associations (which has been lobbying for the split sleeper berth to be brought back), published a report on the benefits of the “flexibility” the split sleeper berth would bring.
ATRI used truck GPS data to model the application of split rest beyond the 8- and 2-hour increments allowed under the existing HOS rules, and found drivers could spend less time and money while driving the same distances. That analysis found that drivers could avoid congestion “by taking strategic periods of rest; a rest period of three or more hours that qualifies toward the daily 10-hour rest requirement could effectively help drivers avoid slow-moving peak travel periods.”
Rush says the ATRI study says the split sleeper berth it will save time and money, “but at no point did it address the sleep patterns of the driver. Sleep patterns in time will start to become more visible with e-logs. It took about two years of running strictly legal before we began so to see and hear about sleep patterns and how that affects each driver. We saw a drastic improvement in safety with e-logs and following [natural] sleep patterns. In fact, so much so that we stopped taking loads off hours and we are still adhering to that. Sleep patterns are critical to keeping our drivers safe and fully alert. Look at our safety record over the past 10 years and you will see what I am stating is true.”
Fast-Tracking HOS Changes
Rush may have an uphill battle. There’s a lot of momentum at the FMCSA, and lobbying pressure from trucking groups, to make this and other changes.
David Heller, vice president of governmental affairs at the Truckload Carriers Association, pointed out at a meeting of The Machinery Haulers Association last week that a pilot program that would have studied the effects of the split sleeper berth in real life has been canceled.
Instead, the agency has issued an information collection request, as it also goes through the comments from its recent Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking on HOS changes, which includes the split sleeper berth rule.
Instead of the pilot program, Heller said, “they’re getting data from the carriers, and data is king.”
In a typical administration, Heller explained, we would be looking at a four- to five-year rulemaking process – if everything goes right. “The agency has said this will be fast tracked. They said within a year they will issue a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking. You might have a final rule in two years. Again, that’s with no litigation or problems cropping up.”
But if you agree with Steve Rush, you’ll still have a chance to make your case when the agency issues that NPRM. I encourage you to really think about it. We haven't even really seen yet how the full effect of the ELD mandate will shake out, or how the effects of the recent guidance changes to the personal conveyance rules. Could bringing back the split sleeper berth rule actually be a step backwards when it comes to safety and to driver health and satisfaction?