The minute a truck driver slides behind the wheel, the race against the clock is on. As the day progresses, each tick of the dashboard clock becomes a relentless reminder that the shift ends exactly 14 hours after it began, no timeouts allowed. It hasn't always been that way. Prior to Jan. 4, when the new hours-of-service (HOS) regulations kicked in, drivers had the flexibility of using mid-day breaks to extend the on-duty period if events weren't unfolding according to schedule. But those days are over.
Nobody's exempt from the new rule. Giant truckload carriers, independent owner-operators, regional LTL haulers, for hire carriers and private fleets … all must comply with the new hours-of-service regulations. Aimed at preventing accidents caused by driver fatigue, the rule represents the first major revision to the hours-ofservice regulations in six decades. Under the new system, drivers are limited to a maximum of 11 hours of driving in a 14- hour shift (in contrast to the former 10 hours of driving within a 15-hour shift). A shift cannot begin unless the driver has taken at least 10 hours off, and each shift must be followed by at least another 10 hours off. Drivers may not drive after being on duty for 60 hours in a seven-consecutive- day period or 70 hours in an eight-consecutive- day period. The on-duty cycle may be restarted once a driver has taken at least 34 consecutive hours off duty.
The regs may apply to all, but their effects on different types of operations vary widely. Hardest hit of all may be some of America's private fleets, the trucking operations that exist primarily to haul freight for their parent companies. Today, private fleet vehicles are a common sight on the nation's highways as they go about their day delivering everything from snack foods to kitchen cabinets to customers and hauling raw materials like flour and vegetable oil to company plants. Certainly they're logging plenty of road time: Private fleets account for approximately 53 percent of all the U.S. miles traveled by medium- and heavy-duty trucks, according to the National Private Truck Council (NPTC).
But they're also logging plenty of time off the road, which is why they sometimes find themselves running up against the new HOS limits. Private fleet drivers typically do much more than just haul goods from point A to point B; many of them carry out a number of non-driving duties as well— loading and unloading, setting up customer displays or even performing installation work. Now, under the new HOS rule, those time-consuming tasks are suddenly on the clock.
That seemingly minor wrinkle has major implications for, say, route drivers who make multiple delivery stops. "My gut tells me that local distribution people have been hardest hit," says Richard P. Schweitzer, general counsel for the NPTC. "They don't get the benefit of the 11-hour rule, but they're hit by the 14-hour daily limitation. That's mitigated by the 34-hour reset. A number of companies have said they had to hire drivers and put on additional equipment. Some large companies have said they have to hire hundreds of additional drivers."
Yet not all fleets are feeling the pain. Garry Petty, president and CEO of the NPTC, emphasizes that the effects of the HOS rule on private fleets vary widely, depending on the nature of the operation. Some fleets, he says, have noticed only a nominal impact. Others have reported that the time limits are putting pressure on fleet capacity, forcing them to reconfigure some of their routes or add equipment. Yet others have found the regs so onerous that they're actually considering outsourcing some of the non-driving functions, he adds.
And a few lucky fleets will find the new regs work to their advantage. Some linehaul operations, for example, are finding the rule can actually improve driver productivity because it allows an additional hour of driving compared to the previous rule (which allowed only 10 hours of driving in a 15-hour shift). "For those over-the-road operations, the 11 hours has been a benefit," says Schweitzer. "For everyone, the 34- hour reset has been a tremendous benefit. It allows you to start a new week after a couple of days off."
The debate over the hours-of-service rule took an ugly turn last October, when postal authorities in Greenville, S.C., discovered a letter addressed to the Department of Transportation that contained a metal vial of the deadly poison ricin. Only days later, postal authorities intercepted a similar letter containing the poison addressed to the White House. That letter threatened to turn Washington, D.C., "into a ghost town" if the new rule went into effect. Neither letter reached its addressee.
The first letter's writer, who claimed to be an owner of a tanker fleet, demanded that the rest time in the hours-of-service rule be reduced to eight hours from 10. The writer claimed to have access to large amounts of castor pulp—the source of ricin—and threatened to start dumping if the rule was not changed. The letter was signed "Fallen Angel." (The Center for Disease Control explains that ricin is part of the waste mash produced when castor beans are processed to make castor oil. It can cause death within 36 to 72 hours of exposure.)
The Postal Service, the FBI and the DOT's inspector general have offered a $100,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of whoever sent the letter.
Dock around the clock
Some operations may have benefited from the new regs. But many more are chafing under the restrictions, which are forcing them to find ways to reduce the amount of non-driving time logged by drivers. "The biggest effect on both shippers and carriers is that it makes every hour important," says Schweitzer. "You can't waste time sitting around waiting to load or unload, and you can't take time to rest unless it's in a sleeper berth."
For a lot of fleet operators, that raises the delicate question of how to coax their customers to shake their old habits and find ways to get the drivers in and out quickly, regardless of when they show up. "That's one of the issues I hear about a lot," Petty says. "Distribution centers—the customers where many of these trucks are going—have to change and be more accommodating in terms of access.We are in a 24-7 market. We can no longer afford bankers' hours for opening and closing DCs."
But not all fleets are waiting around for their customers to fall into line; they're taking things into their own hands. Schweitzer reports that many companies are already reviewing and altering their loading, unloading and dispatch procedures. "You want to make sure you get your driver out and home again, or at least to a safe place," he says.
Schweitzer also notes that he's seen renewed interest in drop and hook operations, in which the trucker picks up one trailer while leaving another behind at the shipping or receiving dock for the customer to load or unload at its convenience. Trouble is, that requires a lot of equipment. While added demand may be good news for trailer manufacturers or lessors—though one trailer manufacturer says it hasn't shown up in sales numbers yet—it translates into added costs for fleet operations already strapped for cash.
Still, the question remains, have the new regs accomplished their original mission of improving safety? Ironically, though the HOS restrictions were intended to minimize fatigue-related accidents, the push to stop work 14 hours after a shift begins could have the opposite effect. Schweitzer reports that a number of NPTC members who attended the group's safety committee meeting in February voiced concerns that the rule was forcing drivers to rush during the day. "It used to be that if you were up against the rule on the way home, you could rest for an hour or two and then come in after 15 hours." Now, drivers must finish their shift 14 hours after starting and cannot count rest periods as time off. "They see that as a real safety issue," Schweitzer says.
And highway safety isn't the only concern. Some council members whose route drivers are responsible for tasks like setting up displays at customer sites worry that the drivers may be rushing through the job, resulting in injuries and an increase in workers' compensation claims, he adds.
In the end, issues like these will likely be resolved back at fleet headquarters, not in Washington, D.C. With little prospect of legislative relief, managers are reconfiguring routes, reassigning drivers and taking a hard look at their operations. "Maybe it requires going back and correcting dispatch, but that's costly," Schweitzer says.
In the meantime, the NPTC has gone into overdrive with efforts to help its members adjust to the rule, issuing almost weekly notices explaining the rule's particulars and discussing how they'll be enforced. In addition, the council has organized a number of open forums and teleconferences. The regs and their effects on costs and operations will also be a major topic of discussion at the NPTC annual meeting in Atlanta next month.
What might have been
Despite concerns like these, most fleet managers see the final rule as a big improvement over what might have been. Petty says the final regs, which were announced a year ago, revised in the fall and implemented in January, are infinitely preferable to draft regs floated in 2000. Those draft regs, for instance, regulated drivers' hours in five different categories. "That was complete insanity," Petty says.
That doesn't mean that everyone is satisfied. "I'm not saying everyone is happy with the outcome," he says. "That's particularly true for companies that have built quality-of-life features into the work schedule—a shower, a nap. Those companies feel that those perks not only enhanced the drivers' quality of life, but also served to promote safety. Those companies are not particularly happy. The rule is compromising their ability to do those sorts of things."
Anyone who watches late night TV knows that aspiring truck drivers can enroll in driver training school. But where do managers go for training? One option is the Internet. Last fall, the National Private Truck Council (NPTC) launched an online training program for private fleet managers. Courses offered through the Fleet Learning Center, as it's called, provide the background needed to attain the trade group's Certified Transportation Professional designation.
The courses, which allow enrollees to work at their own pace, were developed by NPTC Educational and Training Consultant Tom Moore and an advisory board that included industry experts and professional practitioners, NPTC says. They are divided into five modules: fleet finances; safety, security and compliance; equipment and maintenance; operations; and human resources.
The Fleet Learning Center was funded for NPTC by International Truck & Engine Co. and Idealease of North America.
Registration for the courses is $150 for NPTC members and $250 for non-members. To learn more, visit www.fleetlearningcenter.org.