Let sleeping berths lie?

Last month, my connecting flight from Cincinnati to Toledo was delayed by a late arrival, aircraft deicing, a cockpit computer fault and uncertainty over whether a passenger was missing. After all those events, we already were an hour past the scheduled arrival in Toledo, and the flight was canceled. The first officer and flight attendant had run out of hours.

Everyone was annoyed and inconvenienced, but no one questioned the crew’s strict duty-time regulations. And certainly no one suggested that the first officer and flight attendant grab some empty seats on the plane, take a nap for a couple of hours and then resume their rest period after the short flight to Toledo.

Perhaps trucking should not be regulated as tightly as the airline industry. But it is odd that workers in a regulated industry are allowed to split their mandatory rest periods – not just on occasion but on a routine basis.

Spare me the arguments about drivers becoming accustomed to shorter, more frequent periods of sleep or about how drivers get bored – and therefore tired – when they are forced into lengthy rest periods. Face it. These are just ways to rationalize a practice that helps relieve pressure on productivity. Drivers have trained themselves to function this way because they don’t have much choice. But that doesn’t mean this lifestyle is good for them.

In fact, that’s precisely the question facing the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration today. According to a federal appeals court, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration abandoned its duty to consider the impact of the new hours-of-service regulations on driver health.

FMCSA doesn’t necessarily have to end the practice of split rest. It might find that split rest isn’t really that bad for drivers. Or FMCSA might conclude through a cost-benefit analysis that prohibiting the practice isn’t justified. But the agency has prejudiced the issue with past statements that drivers should have the opportunity for eight consecutive hours of uninterrupted sleep every day.

In a notice of proposed rulemaking, FMCSA suggested that use of split rest has undermined attempts elsewhere in the rule to simplify enforcement of log violations. But the agency also is concerned that disallowing use of sleeper berth periods to stop the clock on the 14-hour window for driving may be discouraging rest breaks.

FMCSA said it will consider various possible changes to the sleeper berth provisions, including a prohibition on using split rest to satisfy off-duty requirements. Other options include allowing for shorter continuous rest periods – say eight hours rather than 10 – if they are taken in sleeper berths; requiring that one of the two splits meet a higher minimum, such as eight hours; and allowing split rest only for team drivers. The agency also is considering a change to how sleeper berth periods affect the calculation of the 14-hour window for driving, and it cited the American Trucking Associations’ petition on the subject.

If FMCSA wants to disallow split rest as a substitute for consecutive rest, it could soften the operational blow by granting ATA’s request. Drivers could extend their driving day with a sleeper berth period of at least two hours – provided that they still take 10 consecutive hours off duty once their on-duty period ends. Maybe that would be eight consecutive hours in a sleeper berth. ATA intended that this flexibility augment, not replace, the option for split rest, but it’s better than nothing.

Whatever the outcome, a resolution is long overdue. ”We shall watch this matter closely and if we see any tendency on the part of the carriers to use sleeper cabs where such use does not appear to be reasonably necessary, steps will be taken to put limits upon this practice.”

That was the Interstate Commerce Commission writing. In 1937. It’s time to put the sleeper berth issue to rest.