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Truckers to FMCSA: Keep HOS regs the way they are!

By John D. Schulz, Contributing Editor
August 20, 2010

As Washington prepares for yet another revision to the truck driver hours of service rules—and lawyers on both sides hunker down for what they say is yet another inevitable court fight—the battle lines are drawn.
 
Safety advocates and the Teamsters are union want drivers to drive fewer hours. This summer, the Public Citizen advocacy group asked the government to cut back the legal limit a truck driver could drive to eight hours within any 12-hour period. The current rule allows 11 hours of driving within a 14-hour on-duty period, followed by a mandatory 10-hour rest break.
 
On the other side, major trucking companies and the American Trucking Associations would largely like to leave the current rule in place. They say the current HOS rules have resulted in improved productivity as well as industry safety. They point to the government’s own heavy truck vehicle crash rate data to show the industry has never been safer while per-mile truck fatality figures are at an all-time low.
 
“If we could wave a magic wand we would like the current system to stay where it is,” says Randy Mullett, vice president of government relations and public affairs for Con-way Inc., a major $5 billion transportation company. “The current safety statistics of the industry that has operated under the current HOS rules probably would validate this.”
 
At press time, the latest proposed revision to the rules governing some 3 million long-haul truck drivers was sitting at the Office of Management and Budget after being revised by the Department of Transportation’s Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA). The latest rule is expected to be issued as a notice of proposed rulemaking by November. A public comment period ends Jan. 4, 2011, with perhaps a final rule issued next summer.
 
Here is the upshot for shippers: if truckers are forced to curtail hours that a truck driver is operating, that almost certainly guarantees higher truck rates. If these rules were changed at a time when the economy is improving and truck capacity is tight, those rate increases would be larger, perhaps as much as 10 percent or more, according to knowledgeable industry sources.
 
That’s because in addition to exacerbating the supply-demand equation, any change in HOS would cause higher costs for carriers as they retool their systems, change the computer-designed matrixes which are the heart of today’s load-matching software and would probably result in higher congestion costs as carriers would be forced to put more trucks on the highways to offset the loss of productivity by reduced driving hours. Slower service is almost a certainty, carriers say.


When the current rule allowing one additional hour of driving went into effect in 2004, large truckload carriers such as Schneider National and others estimated they enjoyed productivity gains of between 4-6 percent. Those gains presumably would be erased by any reduction in driving hours.
 
In addition, carriers say shippers would be hurt by service reductions as well. Lanes that are routinely listed for overnight service now might have to be altered for two-day service, as drivers would have fewer hours in which to complete their rounds, industry officials say.
 
Increased congestion is another concern. If the current HOS were reduced from 11 hours to, say, nine hours a day, that could mean as many as 250,000 additional trucks operating on already congested highways, according to one industry estimate.
 
Just the uncertainty of yet another possible change in HOS is causing some angst in the industry. The government first started tinkering with HOS back in 1999. There have been at least three major revisions already, as Public Citizen and others have forced at least three successful court challenges to the way the government has produced its regulations.
 
“We’re concerned about it because we don’t know what to expect,” says Con-way’s Mullett. “Any change to hours has a significant impact on our employees and our operations. The more different it is from current rule, the more concerned we are. We really can’t plan for anything until this is resolved.”
 
Whatever is resolved by the next proposed rulemaking will almost certainly be challenged in the courts. Also, there is a possibility one side or the other might seek a legislative solution to the issue. With the control of Congress in doubt until the mid-term elections results, that just adds one more layer of uncertainty to an already muddled HOS picture.

About the Author

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John D. Schulz
Contributing Editor

John D. Schulz has been a transportation journalist for more than 20 years, specializing in the trucking industry. He is known to own the fattest Rolodex in the business, and is on a first-name basis with scores of top-level trucking executives who are able to give shippers their latest insights on the industry on a regular basis. This wise Washington owl has performed and produced at some of the highest levels of journalism in his 40-year career, mostly as a Washington newsman.


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