A key part of the federal government's rules governing commercial truck driver operations will impact only a small percentage of the driver workforce while preventing 1,400 crashes, 560 injuries, and 19 deaths annually, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) said yesterday in releasing a study on the impact of the so-called restart provisions of its driver hours-of-service (HOS) regulations.
The study, jointly conducted by Washington State University's Sleep and Performance Research Center and Philadelphia-based Pulsar Informatics Inc., was mandated by Congress under the transportation funding bill signed into law by President Obama in July 2012. The study examined the real-world effect of the "restart" language requiring drivers to take at least 34 hours off once every seven days and to include within that off-duty time two rest periods between 1 a.m. and 5 a.m. over two consecutive days.
Congress, which originally set a Sept. 30 deadline for having the report completed, is not required to take any action upon receiving the document.
From January to July of last year, the researchers studied 106 drivers hauling various trailer types and driving different lengths of haul. They found that drivers who began their workweeks with one nighttime rest period instead of two exhibited more nighttime attention lapses, were sleepier towards the end of their shifts, and exhibited a greater propensity to drift from their lanes regardless of the time of day. FMCSA said the report adds to the body of scientific evidence that the current rules, which replaced regulations issued in 2004, are more effective at combatting driver fatigue than the prior version.
FMCSA said the restart provisions would mostly impact drivers who work, on average, 70 hours a week, the maximum allowed under the rules. Those drivers comprise about 15 percent of the total driver workforce, according to the agency. "For the small percentage of truckers that average 70 hours of work a week, two nights of rest is better for their safety and the safety of everyone on the road," FMCSA Administrator Anne S. Ferro said in a statement.
The Hours-of-Service rules are arguably the most controversial federal truck safety policies ever implemented. Shippers, carriers, owner-operators, organized labor, and public utility commissions opposed the regulations for one reason or another. The rules, which also reduced the maximum workweek to 70 from 82, have resulted in a 3- to 5-percent reduction in truck productivity, shippers and carriers contend. Drafted in December 2011 to be enforced 18 months later, the rules survived a major legal challenge in August when a federal appeals court in Washington upheld virtually all of the FMCSA policy.
The American Trucking Associations (ATA), which opposed the rules from the start, said the report falls short in several key areas. For example, the report doesn't address the safety impact or the effectiveness of the once-a-week restart provision, even though the language has never been part of federal driver safety rules before, the group said. Though the study acknowledges that the two late-night rest periods might result in more drivers on the road during the day, it fails to discuss the safety or congestion impacts of that scenario, ATA said. The report also does not evaluate the driver health benefits of the restart provisions even though that was the main reason FMCSA wanted to change the language in the first place, the association said.
The "incomplete nature of the analysis and the lack of justification for the once-weekly use restriction is consistent with the flawed analyses that led the agency to make these changes in the first place," said Dave Osiecki, ATA's executive vice president and chief of national advocacy."
The Owner-Operators Independent Drivers Association (OOIDA) criticized the study as a poor representation of the commercial driver universe, noting that only 106 drivers were canvassed and, of those, only 36 were over-the-road drivers, the types of drivers most affected by the new restart provisions. "Unfortunately, this was a study that was sort of thrown together," said Todd Spencer, OOIDA's executive vice president.
Rep. Richard L. Hanna, R-N.Y., who has introduced legislation to rescind the restart provisions, was quoted in trucker magazine Landline as calling the study "worthless" and too narrow in scope. "FMCSA is telling millions of truckers they are tired, but the study only examined 100 [drivers] from three companies," Hanna said. Hanna also criticized the findings for ignoring the issue of forcing truckers on the road during morning rush hours when roads are most congested and dangerous. The lawmaker has called for a delay in the provision's implementation so the Government Accountability Office (GAO) can conduct an independent study of its impact on all stakeholders.
Thomas E. Bray, an HOS expert at J.J. Keller & Associates Inc., a Neenah, Wis.-based consultancy that has worked with carriers to prepare for the rules, said he wasn't surprised by the study's findings. Bray said it's hardly a secret that more driver rest results in better performance. In addition, because FMCSA already has studies that support the rules, conclusions to the contrary would have forced it back to the drawing board and would have drawn the wrath of lawmakers, he added.
However, Bray said he was taken aback that the study failed to address the once-a-week restart requirement that is so important to long-haul drivers. "Without a safety study to back up the ... provision, it will remain open for debate as to whether the cost and effects are worth the loss of hours," he said.
An FMCSA spokeswoman was unavailable to comment.