Treating the symptoms

You visit the doctor complaining of back pain. An examination reveals a serious problem requiring invasive surgery and grueling physical rehabilitation. The operation is scheduled for a couple months later, and the doctor gives you a prescription for painkillers to take the edge off. You are still a bit uncomfortable, but your fear grows as the dreaded date approaches. So you reschedule the surgery and ask the doctor to refill your prescription. You haven’t fixed the problem, of course. You just relieved the pressure for a solution.

That’s basically how I view calls for the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration to change a key provision in its revised hours-of-service regulation, which takes effect in January. Many carriers say the new rule will, practically speaking, reduce the number of hours their drivers can drive before taking mandatory rest. That means lost productivity and, consequently, the need to hire more drivers and buy more trucks.

But the rule change doesn’t cause the productivity problem; it just makes it worse. Like a painkiller, flexibility in today’s regulation takes the edge off the true ailment, which often is inefficiency at shipping and receiving docks. And everyone is worried what might happen when the prescription runs out Jan. 4.

Under rules in effect today, a driver must complete his driving within a 15-hour on-duty period, but that period can be extended by rest breaks, meals and other personal time logged off duty. The new rule prohibits driving after the end of the 14th hour after the driver comes on duty. In other words, a driver has a 14-hour window to complete his driving regardless of any off-duty time he may have logged. The only exception to this limit – and it’s an important one – is flexibility already allowed today for drivers to split their rest in a sleeper berth.

In response primarily to the new 14-hour window, several parties separately petitioned for reconsideration. Relief requested ranges from Arizona Public Service Co.’s bid to retain today’s rules for drivers of utility service vehicles to Wal-Mart Stores Inc.’s request that FMCSA change the 14-hour rule to cumulative on-duty time rather consecutive. The Truckload Carriers Association also has filed in support of Wal-Mart’s position.

At the heart of each petition is the notion that FMCSA has failed to account adequately for significant differences among fleet operations subject to the hours rule. The concern is easy to understand but difficult to resolve. FMCSA tried and failed to address this issue in its proposed rule. So except for motorcoach operators, which remain subject to the current rule, the new rule generally applies one set of rules for all regulated carriers and keeps in place the exemptions to the current rule.

FMCSA considered most of the arguments offered by the petitions when it chose a 14-hour window over a cumulative on-duty period. Aside from the political muscle of the parties, you wouldn’t expect FMCSA to be inclined to change its mind.

But carriers’ true worry should not be that they lose regulatory flexibility. The greater problem is the fact that fleet operations – especially for-hire carriers — routinely need drivers to work beyond the 14th hour due to dock inefficiencies. It’s a problem for drivers, who generally get paid little or nothing for hours lost to waiting, loading and unloading.

And it’s a problem for carriers, which suffer lost productivity of their labor and capital.

And because drivers end up wasting so much time, it becomes harder and more expensive for carriers to hire and keep them.

Put aside the notions of consecutive and cumulative on-duty hours. Regardless of what the regulatory clock says, delays cost money. Today’s rules merely soften the blow a little by allowing carriers to recoup some of the lost productivity elsewhere. Perhaps cutting off the regulatory painkillers will force parties to find a cure.