The hand-wringing by transportation trade groups that greeted the federal government's new rules governing commercial truck driver operations is giving way to the notion, at least in some quarters, that the policy may not be the onerous regulatory hammer initially feared to be.
On Dec. 22, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) issued its long-awaited final rule governing drivers' "hours of service" (HOS). The rule maintains a limit of 11 hours of continuous time a driver can be behind the wheel. It also keeps the 14-hour ceiling on the time drivers have to complete all on-duty work-related activities before being required to stop.
The rule cuts to 70 from 82 the maximum driver workweek and requires that drivers take a minimum 30-minute break during an eight-hour work period.
But the most controversial language requires that drivers working the maximum number of weekly hours take at least two consecutive rest periods—between 1 a.m. and 5 a.m.—during a "restart" period lasting 34 straight hours. Once the 34-hour cycle is over, drivers may effectively restart the clock on their seven-day workweeks, according to the rules.
The rule had barely been announced when it was quickly torn to shreds. The American Trucking Associations (ATA), which represents the nation's largest trucking companies, said the rule could compromise public safety by forcing trucks off the road during off-peak times for motor vehicle traffic and onto the highways to join millions of commuters on their way to work.
ATA also argues that the timing of the mandatory rest periods will keep drivers off the roads longer than 34 hours. The group said that requiring drivers to take two consecutive overnight periods of rest within the 34-hour cycle would have the effect of extending the restart period to closer to 45 or 46 hours.
Trade groups representing the nation's retailers contend that the rest periods will disrupt the productivity of retail supply chains that have been calibrated to handle cargo transported between midnight and dawn when goods can get to their destinations in a timely fashion over less-congested highways.
"Supply chain optimization is the bread and butter of America's most successful retailers. Their ability to move goods efficiently has changed the retail landscape and benefited consumers by reducing prices and increasing product assortments. The new hours-of-service rule will upend the advances in efficiency made over the past decade," said Kelly Kolb, vice president for government relations for the Retail Industry Leaders Association (RILA), in a statement.
"A pretty good rule"
But not everyone is perturbed. Don Osterberg, senior vice president of safety and security at Green Bay, Wis.-based truckload and logistics giant Schneider National Inc., said that "it's a pretty good rule. There are people who won't like the restart changes, but on balance, it's a rule we can live with."
Osterberg had been more concerned with language in the original December 2010 proposal that would have required drivers to complete all on-duty work-related activities within 13 hours instead of the current 14 hours. In remarks made at the Council of Supply Chain Management Professionals' 2011 Annual Global Conference in October, Osterberg said the proposed reduction would have the effect of reducing the number of continuous hours a driver can be behind the wheel—even if the government didn't change the driving limit—because most drivers could not complete a continuous 11-hour driving shift under a more compressed overall work schedule. The final rule maintains the 14-hour workday, thus allaying Osterberg's concerns.
Ben Cubitt, senior vice president, consulting and engineering for Dallas-based third-party logistics service provider Transplace, called the rule the "best possible outcome" because it keeps the 11-hour continuous drive times within the 14-hour workday. The other changes "will have only minor impact, [and it] does not appear to be major hit on capacity," Cubitt said.
The National Retail Federation (NRF), while critical of the mandatory rest periods and their potential impact on safety, applauded the FMCSA for keeping the 11-hour continuous drive times. "We're pleased that regulators have seen the wisdom of keeping the current 11-hour limit, but longer overnight breaks create the potential for more big trucks to be mixing with passenger cars during congested daylight hours," said David French, NRF's senior vice president for government relations, in a statement.
Court challenge mulled
The rule is set to take effect on July 1, 2013, giving the supply chain 18 months to adjust. In the interim, industry groups may go to court to try to delay or override the rules—a tactic tried several times since the last version of hours-of-service regulations took effect in 2004.
The ATA plans to hold conference calls with members in the coming days to gauge the rank-and-file response and to determine if acceptance of the new rule is a better option than footing an expensive legal bill in an effort to stop their implementation.
For good or ill, the rules demonstrate that the federal government will be in the trucking industry's collective face for years to come. Noel Perry, senior consultant at Nashville, Ind.-based FTR Associates, said the changes would reduce industry productivity by about 3 percent. And John G. Larkin, Baltimore-based managing director and lead transport analyst at investment firm Stifel, Nicolaus & Co., said "many carriers will struggle to recruit [and] train drivers and keep costs in line as the industry becomes more highly regulated."
Larkin said the trend toward increased government intervention will "end up playing into the hands" of well-managed carriers with strong safety ratings and effective driver recruitment and retention strategies. It will be critical for those select group of truckers to raise rates quickly in response to cost pressures that will be "inevitable" in a new world of government involvement, Larkin added.