FMCSA study on 34-hour HOS restart rule leaves much open to interpretation

By Jeff Berman · January 31, 2014

Since the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) formally rolled out its new trucking Hours-of-Service (HOS) regulations, and in advance of their debut really, there has been and remains a large amount of differing opinions about why these rules were needed, if they really took into account the day-to-day travails of trucking, and, of course, the safety reasons that came with these new rules.

At the heart of the new HOS rules, in case anyone forgot, is the much talked about 34-hour restart rule, which is the following: truckers who maximize their weekly work hours must take at least two nights’ rest when their 24-hour body clock demands sleep the most—from 1:00 a.m. to 5:00 a.m. This rest requirement allows drivers to restart the clock on their work week by taking at least 34 consecutive hours off-duty. The final rule allows drivers to use the restart provision only once during a seven-day period.

This brings us to news from the FMCSA issued this week that it released its long awaited findings based on a third party study it conducted that it said provides “further scientific evidence that the restart provision in the current [HOS] rule for truck drivers is more effective at combatting fatigue than the prior version” (which had no such requirement).

This study is long awaited in that a provision in the current federal transportation bill, MAP-21, called for an HOS field study to expand on an FMCSA report on driver fatigue and maximum driving time requirements focusing on the 34-hour restart rule. But prior to this week, that study was not completed, despite the rules having already gone into effect. 

In its study, the FMCSA explained that scientists measured sleep, reaction time, and sleepiness and said it found that drivers who kicked off their work week with only one nighttime period of rest, instead of the mandated two nights: exhibited more lapses of attention, especially at night; reported greater sleepiness, especially toward the end of their duty periods; and showed increased lane deviation in the morning, afternoon, and at night. 

And the FMCSA added that working long hours on a continuing basis is associated with chronic fatigue, a high risk of crashes and various serious chronic health conditions in drivers, adding that the 34-hour restart is intended to provide sufficient time for a driver to recuperate from chronic fatigue if they work beyond the updated 34-hour restart break. Coupled with that FMSCA noted that according to its analysis the restart rule will prevent about 1,400 crashes and 560 injuries and save 19 lives per year, with extreme driver schedules, when drivers are on the road for more than 70 hours per week, being impacted while 85 percent seeing no subsequent change in their schedules.

The study, which directed FMCSA to expand on an FMCSA report on driver fatigue and maximum driving time requirements focusing on the 34-hour restart rule, was supposed to be conducted by March 31, 2013. But 51 House members said in a letter to Department of Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx last September that even though the field study was not completed, the FMCSA went ahead and finalized and enacted the “untested” new HOS regulations.

“The commercial trucking industry is a pillar of the U.S. economy and small, medium, and large businesses across America depend on the on-time, cost-efficient, and safe transport of finished products and raw materials each day,” the House members wrote. “It is imperative that the rules governing the commercial trucking industry be backed by factual, statistically-valid and data-driven studies that are fully completed and analyzed before proposed rules come into effect.”

They added that the new HOS rules greatly decrease driver flexibility and also increase costs for the trucking industry at a cost of up to $376 million annually (according to American Trucking Associations data) to the industry alone, which will in turn be passed on to American consumers as prices in stores will subsequently rise as a result.

The ATA issued a statement that directly indicated the FMCSA’s study’s findings were less than complete, explaining it is lacking critical analyses on multiple issues. It explained that FMCSA is cautious in suggesting how important certain findings are, such as drivers with fewer nighttime rest periods may have incrementally slower reaction times as short as one-third of one second and a modest increase in lane deviations, in relation to the rule’s efficiency.

Other criticisms cited by ATA were that the rule did not evaluate the safety effects of efficacy of the once-per-week restart restriction also known as the 168 hour rule, not did it pay heed to the “real-world safety implications of putting more trucks on the road during daytime hours, a time when more passenger vehicles are also on the road,” or “evaluate health benefits of the restart changes which were used to justify the rule change.”

National Shippers Strategic Transportation Council (NASSTRAC) Advocacy Chairman and President of Tranzact Technologies Mike Regan said that the FMCSA study and the 34-hour restart rule relate less to truck safety than to the pursuit of a political agenda that is emblematic of a battle between modes, specifically rail and trucking.

“The purpose of the 34-hour restart rule was really a solution looking for a problem,” said Regan. “I am seeing spot market rates at the end of December hit record-high levels, which has never happened. Our brokerage group is having a hard time finding trucks as are most. We have seen offers for a little less than a 500-mile load for $4,000. And shippers are getting blindsided, not just by HOS, but weather problems that are having an impact on where people want to send trucks so consequently to a certain extent there is almost a little bit of an auction-type environment going on.”

Regan said it may not seem like a big deal when four large large truckload carriers say HOS is negatively impacting productivity by 3-to-5 percent, but when a market loses 24 percent of its previous capacity, there is an issue.

“Take fuel supply. Gov. John Kasich of Ohio and other governors suspended HOS rules for those carriers delivering proprane supplies, and if the previous HOS rules were so blatantly unsafe as the FMCSA were to suggest, there is no scenario under which you would relax the rules in the even of a major emergency as the rules are suspended when important things need to get done. That is making a statement.”

As one can see, the new rules remain unpopular to say the least and when it comes to the new HOS rules, acrimony reigns supreme. What happens next with HOS is hard to say but chances are, the scuffling in the trenches will remain intact, although that may not be the case for available capacity.

About the Author

Jeff Berman
Jeff Berman is Group News Editor for Logistics Management, Modern Materials Handling, and Supply Chain Management Review. Jeff works and lives in Cape Elizabeth, Maine, where he covers all aspects of the supply chain, logistics, freight transportation, and materials handling sectors on a daily basis. Contact Jeff Berman

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