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Trucking industry officials, analysts, shippers, rip FMCSA proposal to reduce driving time

By Jeff Berman, Group News Editor
January 20, 2011

It’s hard to get Republicans and Democrats, shippers and carriers, administration officials and analysts, and practically everybody else in Washington to agree on much these days.
 
Except this: the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s (FMCSA) trial balloon to reduce by one hour (from 11 to 10) the actual time a truck driver can be driving is a horrific idea, unbased in science or data, that would conservatively cost the U.S. economy $2 billion in lost productivity, and probably much more in inefficiency and additional infrastructure requirements.
 
Whether the proposal actual becomes a regulation is increasingly seen by industry insiders as a longshot, given the political backlash FMCSA’s trial balloon received.
 
In a Jan 19th letter to President Barack Obama, American Trucking Associations President and CEO Bill Graves expressed optimism that the newly pro-business White House would come to its senses and throw a roadblock in front of FMCSA’s proposal to shave an hour off the legal time a truck driver can drive.
 
The president would seem to be on that path. In a Jan. 18 op-ed article on regulatory initiatives in the Wall Street Journal, Obama said his administration embraces “common sense rules of the road that strengthen our country without unduly interfering with the pursuit of progress and growth of our economy.
 
Graves said trucking is doing exactly that. The current HOS rule – in place for more than 7 years now – has strengthened the $550 billion trucking industry and the huge slice of the U.S. economy that relies on trucks, while at the same time facilitating “the most dramatic truck safety improvements our industry has ever seen.”
 
On Dec. 23, FMCSA dropped a bombshell on the industry by suggesting it would like to reduce to 10 hours the legal driving time. It also would retain a portion of the “34-hour restart” provision by allowing drivers to restart their weekly clock by taking at least 34 consecutive hours off-duty. However, the restart provision would be revised by requiring that it include two.  Other proposed changes include:
-Decreasing daily “on-duty” time from a maximum 14 to 13 hours. Drivers would continue to be allowed to drive either 10 or 11 hours within a 14-hour “window”;
-Requiring a minimum 30-minute break after a maximum of 7 hours driving or working in order for a driver to continue driving; and
-Permitting the standard 14-hour window to be extended to 16 hours twice a week.
 
Just the thought of reducing driving time by one hour sent analysts and trucking industry executives to their pocket calculators to estimate the cost and inefficiencies that would result. That’s because today’s modern domestic distribution network is built typically on a series of regional distribution centers, serviced by TL and LTL moves, typically with “pedal runs” of about 200-to-400 miles, easily accomplished in one day’s driving.
 
If that driving time were reduced, analysts say, it would be nothing short of chaos.
 
“It would be very disruptive,” Dick Armstrong, chairman of Armstrong & Associates, Stoughton, Wis., a supply chain management consulting company. “What would happen is you would lose ability to do about 50 miles on first leg when the truck leaves a particular location. That cuts down from 550 to 500 miles maximum. Where you have commercial areas and heavy traffic, it would affect more. It’s going to take 9 percent of efficiency away on that first day of operations.”
Armstrong added he didn’t think the move from 11 to 10 hours driving “has been well-thought-out at all. It doesn’t make a lock of sense. What would be impacted would be the longer lengths of haul within a region. It would suddenly add an extra day of delivery time to operation of those runs.”
 
Rob Abbott, the ATA’s vice president of safety policy, said on a recent conference call sponsored by the National Industrial Transportation League that the HOS changes “affect everyone in the supply chain,” not merely the trucking companies or drivers. And the industry is girding for a possible reduction of driving time by one hour.
 
“DOT leaves the door open to keeping the driving time at 11 hours, but the agency has said its preference is to make it 11 hours,” Abbott said. “We somewhat expect the agency’s final rule will push the 10-hour requirement out on the street.
 
Randy Mullett, vice president of government relations and public affairs, Con-way Inc., told LM that he doesn’t believe FMCSA has the data to support such a reduction in HOS, and that’s why it just floated the idea in its Dec. 23 announcement.
 
“I believe that if the FMCSA had the safety data to support reducing driver hours to 10 from the current 11 hours, they’d have published it in the proposed rule,” Mullett said. “It appears they don’t. In fact, they are asking carriers for input. It seems to be a case of a foregone solution in search of a problem.”
 
Mullett said every large carrier wants to increase highway safety and reduce crashes because of the high cost of litigation and accidental highway deaths.
 
“But rulemaking designed to do this needs to be based on validated data and fact, not emotional rhetoric,” Mullett added.
 
According to the DOT, truck-related traffic fatalities dropped 20 percent in 2009 compared to 2008.  That’s the fourth straight annual decline and a 33 percent drop since the new hours of service rules first went into effect in 2004, Mullett noted. ATA has supplied the DOT and the White House with similar statistics to buttress its case.

Satish Jindel, principal of SJ Consulting, Pittsburgh, said that the trucking industry could eventually adapt to a 10-hour driving day – that was the rule prior to 2004, after all – but that there would be an economic toll in the meantime on carriers and shippers.
 
The whole issue is steeped in politics, he said. With Republicans regaining the House and the White House suddenly flashing its pro-business side, Jindel said he thought the entire 10th hour driving issue would subside in time.
 
“It is a political issue_ it doesn’t have to do with safety,” Jindel said. “It’s very hard to predict politics. With Republicans in control of House, I would think it should be easier now to keep it at 11.”
 
If a 10-hour limit wins approval along with the other changes, that would not mean fewer drivers. It would probably mean more, which could add to congestion. Going from 11 hours to 10 hours is roughly a 9 percent reduction in driver capacity.

Mullett said there is “no data” to support the theory that highway safety would improve. In fact, he said, if FMCSA had data that said accident frequency had gone up under the current rules, they’d have included it in their proposal.
 
The reality is that the earliest the new rules can go into effect is March or April of 2012.  The final rule will be issued in July. Then there will be another comment period. Then the rule becomes effective in November.  There will be a certain amount of time for training before implementation. So you are looking out 15-18 months for implementation, best case.  And that’s not factoring in any potential legal challenges.
 
“This is a multi-billion dollar decision for the industry and for the economy,” Mullett said.  “It needs to be driven by facts, not emotion. We have to get it right.”
 
Graves’ letter to the White House said DOT changed the HOS rule for truck drivers in 2004. According to DOT figures, from 2004 to 2008 (the latest year data is available) truck mileage increased by almost 10 billion miles. During this time the industry achieved historic lows in the three most significant highway safety-related measures: fatal, injury, and property damage crashes.
 
The 2004 collision rate for all fleets was 0.684 collisions per 1 million miles, and that fell to 0.604 in 2009, an 11.7 percent decline. For TL fleets, it was 0.812 collisions per 1 million miles in 2004, and that fell to 0.726, a 10.6 percent decline. For LTL, it was 0.525 collisions per million mils in 2004, and that fell to 0.481 in 2009, an 8.5 percent drop.
 
“Mr. President,” Graves said in his letter to the White House,  “FMCSA’s Dec. 29, 2010, proposed changes to the HOS rule are, using your words, “just plain dumb,” and “not worth the cost” of making “our economy less competitive.” The Agency’s own analysis shows the rule’s costs outweigh the safety benefits. Further, the alleged health benefits are purely speculative and not based on hard data or science.”
 
If the 11th hour of driving were eliminated, it is very likely ATA and other trucking interests would challenge the ruling in court, officials strongly hinted.

About the Author

Jeff Berman headshot
Jeff Berman
Group News Editor

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. .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).


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