The federal government will keep the current limit on the number of consecutive hours commercial truck drivers can operate their rigs but will shorten drivers' workweeks and require two rest intervals that critics say could increase the risks to public safety on the highways.
The long-awaited final rule on driver "hours of service," issued today by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA), maintains a limit of 11 hours of continuous time a driver can be behind the wheel. The agency had toyed with the idea of reducing the limit on continuous driving hours to 10, a move that provoked an outcry from shippers and truckers, who warned that the change would disrupt carefully crafted supply chains built around 11-hour continuous drive times. FMCSA said it would conduct further research to determine whether the current 11-hour limit carries additional safety risks.
At the same time, the rule limits a driver's workweek to 70 hours within a seven-day period, down from 82 hours. In addition, drivers cannot drive after working eight hours until they take at least a 30-minute break.
The rule goes into effect July 1, 2013.
Controversial restart provision
In what is shaping up to be the rule's most controversial language, drivers working the maximum number of weekly hours would be required to take at least two rest periods—between 1 a.m. and 5 a.m.—during a 34-hour "restart" period. Under this provision, drivers may restart the clock on their workweeks 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.
Industry groups had opposed that provision, saying the timing of the mandatory rest periods would keep drivers off the roads much longer than 34 hours. The American Trucking Associations (ATA) has used the example of a driver who finishes his shift at 8 a.m. and begins a restart period that normally would end at 6 p.m. the following day. However, because the driver would need to rest for two "overnight periods" to meet the 34-hour restart requirement, he would not be able to start work again until 6 a.m. the day after that, 46 hours after the end of his original shift.
Federal officials defended the final rule. "Trucking is a difficult job, and a big rig can be deadly when a driver is tired and overworked," said Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood in announcing the rule's release. "This final rule will help prevent fatigue-related truck crashes and save lives. Truck drivers deserve a work environment that allows them to perform their jobs safely."
"This final rule is the culmination of the most extensive and transparent public outreach effort in our agency's history," said FMCSA Administrator Anne S. Ferro.
Industry response largely negative
Industry reaction was swift and mostly unfavorable. The ATA said the rule will please no one except organized labor, which might benefit by having more trucks and drivers on the roads. The group said the rule may result in an increase in truck-involved crashes by forcing trucks to have more interaction with passenger vehicles and increasing the risk to all drivers.
"By mandating drivers include two periods between 1 a.m. and 5 a.m. as part of a 'restart' period, FMCSA is assuring that every day as America is commuting to work, thousands of truck drivers will be joining them, creating additional and unnecessary congestion and putting motorists and those professional drivers at greater risk," said Bill Graves, ATA's president and CEO.
Noting that most truck-involved crashes occur between 6 a.m. and noon, Graves said the rest time requirement "not only effectively destroys the provision of the current rule most cited by professional drivers as beneficial, but it will put more trucks on the road during the statistically riskiest time of the day."
The Retail Industry Leaders Association (RILA) said the rule will increase both highway congestion and the cost of moving goods via trucks.
"Rather than encouraging greater efficiency, the new hours-of-service regulations will increase transportation costs, congestion, and pollution by funneling more trucks onto the road at peak driving times," said Kelly Kolb, RILA's vice president for government relations.
Todd Spencer, executive vice president of the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association (OOIDA), said the changes "are unnecessary and unwelcome and will result in no significant safety gains."
"The hours-of-service regulations should ... be more flexible to allow drivers to sleep when tired and to work when rested, and not penalize them for doing so," said Spencer. "It's the only way to reach significant gains in highway safety and reduce non-compliance."
Dave Osiecki, senior vice president, policy for the ATA, said the association will be holding conference calls with its members in the coming days to determine the next course of action. In particular, members will be weighing the potential negative impact of the mandatory rest period with the benefits of keeping the current 11-hour limit on continuous drive times, he said.