A refreshing dose of reason

Rarely do you see a federal regulation so reasonable and appropriate as the new hours-of-service rule issued last month by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. The agency ditched the complex and ill conceived May 2000 proposed rule in favor of changes designed to reduce driver fatigue while preserving productivity.

Regulatory change should be evolutionary not revolutionary, and that is clearly the case here. Some critics may view the changes as so minor that they aren’t worth making. But while the changes may not be dramatic, they address real problems.

First, FMCSA has given drivers two more hours off duty. A driver can’t get eight hours of sleep in an eight-hour rest period. A 10-hour rest period doesn’t guarantee more sleep, but it certainly provides a reasonable opportunity.

The new rule also moves drivers toward a 24-hour clock, which many fatigue scientists believe to be essential. Drivers must stop driving 14 hours after they begin work. Combined with a 10-hour off-duty period, the work/rest cycle is capped at 24 hours, although it could be shorter.
Drivers and carriers lose some flexibility under the new daily work limit, but they gain some back through a new weekly restart provision. A driver can start a fresh week after taking a 34-hour break during that week. This voluntary restart rewards drivers for taking breaks long enough to achieve recuperative rest.

Contrast this with the well intentioned but overly rigid recovery period in FMCSA’s May 2000 proposed rule. The mandatory “weekend” ran from 32 hours to 56 hours, depending on when the driver went off duty. A driver had to have two consecutive off-duty periods running from midnight to 6 a.m.

Suppose a driver arrived home for his weekend a few minutes late. Under the proposed rule, an extra day off would have been either his penalty or reward, depending on his point of view. To avoid that extra day, the driver would have had to park his truck before midnight and take his 32 hours or so of rest away from home. How relaxing!

These scenarios may sound absurd, but they were quite plausible when you consider that FMCSA also had proposed to require electronic onboard recorders, which could enforce compliance precisely and absolutely. No fudging. No foggy memories. No logging bunk time in Memphis when a fuel receipt puts the driver in Little Rock.

FMCSA shelved mandatory recorders, citing costs, susceptibility to tampering, privacy and other concerns. Instead, the agency plans to conduct more research on recorders and to explore incentives to encourage their use. But even when these issues are resolved, recorders may take enforcement in the wrong direction. The data stream from onboard recorders could fuel an orgy of narrow-minded enforcement.

Recorder data would be easy to collect, transmit and store. Once that data starts flowing, pressure would build for FMCSA and its agents to tap it routinely for enforcement purposes. Mining recorder data to identify scofflaws would be like shooting fish in a barrel, and even the smallest transgression might lead to enforcement action.

This scenario stands in sharp contrast with FMCSA’s efforts to concentrate its resources on high-risk carriers and measure success in lives saved, not fines levied. The SafeStat carrier safety analysis system, for example, places greatest emphasis on recordable accidents. Onboard recorders might be allies in FMCSA’s safety campaign, but used unwisely, they could be counterproductive.

Electronic onboard recorders may be inevitable, but that is a worry for another day. For now, let’s congratulate FMCSA for demonstrating that reason is still alive in Washington. For once, bureaucrats understood that fixing a problem doesn’t require punishing an entire industry.