A long-awaited rule governing truck drivers' hours of service was issued by the federal Department of Transportation in late April. Though truckers generally expressed relief at what they saw, safety groups charged that the government had placed truckers' economic interests ahead of public safety.
The new rule allows drivers to operate vehicles for 11 hours within a 14-hour period after at least 10 consecutive hours off duty. That's a relatively minor variation from the current rule, which allows 10 hours of driving within a 15-hour on-duty period after eight hours of off-duty time. The new rule - like the old - prohibits driving after 60 hours on duty in a seven-consecutive-day period or 70 hours in an eight-consecutive-day period. The on-duty cycle can begin again after a driver takes at least 34 consecutive hours off duty.
Short-haul truck drivers like route drivers—drivers who routinely return to their place of dispatch at the end of the work day and then are released from duty—are allowed an on-duty period of 16 hours once during any seven-consecutive-day period. The DOT says the 16-hour excepti on takes into consideration legitimate business needs without jeopardizing safety. According to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, which drafted the rule, without those extra hours, the industry would be required to hire at least 48,000 new drivers.
Though the new rule's provisions may not look terribly different from the old ones, they contain some new restrictions. An analysis by the National Industrial Transportation League (NITL) warns that mid-day breaks will no longer extend an on-duty period. "Thus, a driver who begins his shift at 12 noon, for example, must go off-duty at 2 a.m. (and cannot return to duty for at least 10 hours) even if he took a three-hour break in the afternoon. Under the old rules, this driver would have been able to stay on duty for 15+3 hours - until 6 a.m.," the league told members in its weekly bulletin.
The new rule, which takes effect next Jan. 4, governs interstate truck drivers operating vehicles with a gross vehicle weight rating of 10,001 pounds or more, and operating vehicles transporting hazardous materials in quantities requiring vehicle placards. The FMCSA estimates the new rule will save up to 75 lives and prevent as many as 1,326 fatiguerelated crashes annually. There were an estimated 4,902 truck-related fatalities in 2002, the agency reports.
The FMCA says that delaying enforcement of the rule until January gives the agency and states time to modify computer systems to reflect the regulatory changes, train more than 8,000 state and federal personnel, and educa te the industry. In addition, the agency adds, the implementation plan gives carriers and drivers time to become familiar with the new regulation and make any procedural changes necessary for compliance.
To the trucking industry's relief, provisions requiring drivers to keep a daily log remain unchanged. A controversial draft of the rule three years ago would have required carriers to install electronic on boa rd recorders in their vehicles, a proposal criticized for being intrusive and expensive. But that doesn't mean the idea's been dropped. The FMCSA says it will expand its research on the recorders and similar technologies and will consider offering carriers incentives to install recorders, which the agency says would ensure compliance with record-keeping and hours-of-service rules.
Some like it not
The proposed rule was endorsed by the American Trucking Associations, the major trade organization representing the trucking industry. "This is a package that our members can work with," said Bill Graves, ATA president and CEO, in a prepared statement. "We have worked hard all along for a rule that is a good mixture of common sense and sound science. It will allow us to meet the real world operational needs of the trucking industry and most importantly, do so safely." Adds Gerald Detter, president and CEO of Con-Way Transportation Services, "We meant it when we asked for real hours-of-service reform to improve the safety of our workplace—the nation's highways. We're now on target."
The ATA says it's pleased to see that the new rule incorporates provisions of an ATA proposal to increase the amount of rest time for professiona l truck drivers. It says the new rule promotes the body 's natural 24-hour rhythm, in contrast to the current rule, which is based on an 18-hour day.
But not everyone is happy with the announcement. The new rule was condemned by a group called the Truck Safety Coalition, which includes Citizens for Reliable and Safe Highways (CRASH) and Parents Against Tired Truckers, or P.A.T.T.
In its statement, CRASH contends that the new rule will not reduce fatigue. It argues that on-board recording devices are necessary to ensure enforcement of any rule. "In 2000, the FMCSA admitted that commercial driver paper logbooks were widely falsified and that a high percentage of drivers routinely violated the maximum number of driving hours permitted. Drivers themselves have admitted this fact in independent surveys, such as the survey published by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety," the CRASH statement reads. CRASH argues that the rule favors trucking economic interests over improved safety, which it says conflicts with the 1999 law requiring new hours-of-service rules.
CRASH did applaud the 11-hour limit as an improvement over a 12-hour on-duty cycle proposed in 2000.