Not since the days of transportation regulation have we seen such a case of governmental crisis creation as we've experienced with the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) and its handling of the truck driver hours-of-service (HOS) controversy. I hesitated to even write about it since we've all heard so much rhetoric on the subject, but the recent move by the FMCSA seems to suggest that it does not support an orderly, final resolution of the long-standing disagreement between the government and the industry.
Drivers' hours have been discussed off and on for as long as I've been in the industry, but the regulations under which carriers and drivers now operate were established in 2004. They've been the subject of almost continuous controversy since then, with one side raising concerns about highway safety and the other (representing industry in general) arguing that trucking would take a huge hit in productivity and capacity if drivers' hours were reduced. Finally, in 2011, the FMCSA published proposed rule changes that have met with considerable pushback. Without repeating all the changes here, briefly stated, the most controversial portions of the new rules reduce the total time a driver can work in a week by 12 hours, and modify the 34-hour restart provision.
The American Trucking Associations (ATA) has been particularly vocal in its opposition to the new regulations and in February 2012, asked the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C., to overturn the FMCSA's proposed changes. ATA argued that FMCSA had relied on flawed assumptions to justify the rule change—a reference to the agency's views on the threat posed by drowsy drivers. One of the FMCSA's main arguments in favor of amending the rule was that driver fatigue was contributing to highway fatalities, but the ATA pointed out that since 2004, fatalities involving trucks have decreased by 34 percent.
Court proceedings take time, of course, and the new rules are scheduled to take effect July 1, 2013. Since oral arguments were scheduled for March 15, the chances of a decision by July 1 are probably slim to none. Quite logically, I think, ATA sent a letter to the FMCSA on Jan. 25, asking it to delay enforcement of the new regulations until the court reached a decision. In its letter, the ATA suggested that to begin enforcement before the court ruled on the ATA lawsuit could only result in a waste of financial and other resources if the court ruled in the ATA's favor. It estimated that such a circumstance would cost the industry a whopping $320 million. The FMCSA rejected the request, however, stating that uncertainty about the decision did not justify such a delay.
To me, that decision borders on the irresponsible. I don't know whether it will cost $320 million, although I have no reason to doubt it. But to ask carriers to install systems and processes necessary to conform to the rules effective on July 1, then, if the court decision warrants it, change everything back a few months later makes no sense at all. Even if the ATA loses, no great harm would be done. This argument has been going on for so long, another few months' delay will make little difference.
This issue has created so much controversy and resulted in so much expense already, why compound it by taking such a risk? It just seems that the FMCSA is determined to make these changes as difficult as possible for all concerned. Hopefully, everyone is focused on finding a solution that is best for the drivers and those who share the highways with them, not on winning or losing the argument.