Courtesy of an amendment tucked into the $1.1 trillion fiscal year 2015 federal spending bill, the two most contentious aspects of the government's truck driver hours of service regulations have been shelved until Sept. 30. Until then, drivers are not restricted to one 34-hour weekly "restart" in their eight-day workweek, and they don't have to be sidelined during their restart for two consecutive days between 1 a.m. and 5 a.m.
The amendment by Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine does what sensible legislation is supposed to do: strike an effective balance between public and business interests. A driver's workday is still capped at 14 hours. Drive time is still capped at 11 hours. Drivers must still take a 30-minute rest break during the first eight hours behind the wheel. The amendment sunsets at the end of September, meaning it has a short shelf life. In the interim, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) will study whether it should change the restart rules or leave them as is. If it chooses the latter, it will need to explain the logic and the science behind removing drivers from the highways when the roads are practically deserted and when many are accustomed to driving, and forcing them instead onto the roads during morning rush hours with millions of harried amateurs known as "motorists."
Yet sustainable improvements in highway safety will not come from legislative or bureaucratic initiatives, even sensible ones. They will come from the marketplace, and specifically from changes in shipper practices and behavior. For decades, shippers have reaped the fruits of "capacity assurance," or knowing there will always be rubber tires to move their goods. Production schedules and shipping dates were set for the shipper's convenience. Carriers were expected to follow along and to tolerate such "inconveniences" as arriving at a dock at a pre-arranged time only to wait two hours because the freight wasn't ready, or being forced to queue up with everyone else on Friday because that was when the goods were released. It mattered little to shippers that there were no insurmountable obstacles to adjusting production schedules so as to make things easier for the driver.
The worm has turned. Truck capacity today is far from assured, and the leverage belongs to the carriers. Long dock waiting times will not be tolerated save for exceptional circumstances. Shippers will need to spread out their production schedules to avoid the Friday backlog. They will have to accept that their freight may get there a few hours, maybe a day, later than they are used to. They will have to bring "good freight" to the table; not necessarily freight commanding the highest rate, but freight that's cost-effective for the trucker to carry. If they don't, they will find themselves searching farther afield to find a carrier and likely paying higher rates for less-than-optimal service if they do.
It may be tough love, but it could be the medicine that improves highway safety. Drivers won't feel as pressured to hit challenging delivery windows. They won't be as tired on the road if they spend less time idling at a shipper's dock. They will feel more motivated to produce because they can be more productive. And, surprise, supply chains may operate more efficiently.
We've written extensively about the looming truck capacity "crisis." Here's the silver lining: Shippers will be compelled, or forced, to reconcile their production and distribution schedules. They will also become cognizant of the fact that a driver is a partner, not chattel. Failure to do both could cost them wheels. Call us naive, but we think the realities of a free market for trucking services will do a better job of policing the roads than government by itself is able to do.