What’s next?

By the time you read this, the trucking industry has been operating under the new hours-of-service regulations for about a week. I’m sure you will agree that it’s time to start working on the next rewrite.

It took about 65 years to change a couple of numbers, agree on the notion of a weekly restart and replace the concept of cumulative hours worked with consecutive hours worked. We had better start now if we want to replace the new rules this century with anything more revolutionary.

Some of you are saying, “What’s the hurry? Give these rules a chance.” We can’t give in to that sort of thinking. That’s just a prescription for delay. First we wait a couple of years. Then we mandate a study that will take a few more years. That study comes out and sits on a shelf until it’s so old that we have to do the study again. Then the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration issues an advance notice of proposed rulemaking seeking comment on whether anybody thinks there’s anything wrong with the current rules. Those comments sit on a shelf for a few years. You get the picture.

No, I say that we are already behind the curve.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not even suggesting that there’s anything particularly wrong with the new regulations. They may be better on the whole than the rules they replaced, and they are certainly dramatically better than FMCSA’s April 2000 proposal.

But the rules are inherently flawed because, aside from a few exemptions, they treat all carriers the same. Long-haul truckload carriers and cement mixer operators, for example, are not really in the same business. Expecting a single set of work rules to optimize safety while preserving maximum flexibility for both kinds of operations is absurd. We may be creating artificial driver shortages because some operations simply don’t fit well into the standard hours regime. On the other hand, trying to draft a separate set of rules for several categories of truck drivers probably won’t work either. At least that’s what everyone said three years ago.

Rather than draft a multitude of rules, I would stick with one standard set of regulations – perhaps even the ones that took effect Jan. 4. But since safety is the ultimate goal, I would waive those rules for carriers that meet some agreed-upon standard of safety. The bar for an exemption would be quite high. Winning an exemption from the hours-of-service regulations would be the ultimate achievement of a carrier’s safety department. Wouldn’t it be great if a safety department could devote its full energies toward operating safely rather than ensuring that a driver’s toll receipts are in the right envelope?

Many could endorse the concept of relaxed regulations for super-safe operations. Few would be comfortable with any specific proposal. For starters, we need a commonly recognized metric or standard for what signifies a safe operation.

In concept, that’s what FMCSA’s SafeStat is supposed to be. In practice, SafeStat may be flawed methodologically, and the data used to generate it clearly has problems. We could look at accident rate per mile, but that’s not necessarily fair to local or short-haul operators. On the other hand, accidents per power unit isn’t necessarily fair to the long-haul operator that spends far more time on the road and traveling at higher speeds.

Once we get past the standard, we must struggle with details of enforcement. Plus, what happens if a carrier comes in above and below the standard periodically? These are important details, but we can overcome them within five or six decades. That’s why we need to get moving.