No split decision for FMCSA

For some of you, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s new hours-of-service regulations will be painful to implement, but overall they are better than the rules they replace and far better than what the agency might have adopted. The new rules address the one clear flaw in the existing rules, preserve key elements that ensure both productivity and safety, and grant significant new relief to a large number of motor carriers.

The balance struck in the current rules remains. Measures aimed at improving safety, such as the 14-hour “window” for driving and an increase in minimum rest, are still accompanied by productivity-driven provisions, including 11 hours of driving time and a 34-hour restart.

Despite all the questions raised by Public Citizen and a federal appeals court, FMCSA stuck to its fundamental philosophy – backed by scientific evidence – that higher-quality rest periods and a move toward a 24-hour work-rest cycle are more significant than a longer driving shift and potentially more total hours worked per week. Meanwhile, the latter changes helped the 2003 rules pass the cost-benefit test without destroying their “circadian friendliness,” as FMCSA calls it.

The two major changes – a virtual end to split rest in a sleeper berth and additional flexibility for short-haul operations not requiring commercial driver’s licenses – also are backed by science and attention to what the data truly shows. FMCSA has long acknowledged that drivers should have the opportunity for seven to eight hours of uninterrupted sleep each night. And yet, the 2003 rule retained the option to split rest in a sleeper berth for economic reasons.

When FMCSA officials issued the current rules as the “proposed” rules early this year, they strongly hinted that the sleeper berth exception was troubling based on both research and enforcement. So the sleeper berth exception was a clear target. Still, there is the matter of cost. The agency is requiring drivers to spend at least eight consecutive hours in a sleeper berth in order to get credit for it and to spend another two consecutive hours off duty during the work day. And that two-hour break won’t stop the clock. FMCSA estimates the cost to long-haul trucking to be $30 million a year before factoring in $20 million in benefits.

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Changing nothing else would have produced a net negative benefit compared to today’s rules. Enter the new flexibility granted to certain short-haul operations. The short-haul exception remains in place for operations requiring CDLs. A more generous short-haul exception for operations not requiring CDLs yields $280 million in additional benefits.

Operations covered by the new exception represent about half of all commercial truck registrations, but they are involved in only 10 percent of truck crashes and only 7 percent of fatal truck crashes, FMCSA has determined. So regulatory relief is appropriate.

Many carriers are skeptical of FMCSA’s cost estimates related to doing away with the sleeper berth exception and are concerned especially about the impact on team operations. There is some evidence that team drivers do better on split rest than solo drivers, but FMCSA chose a safer path. It didn’t want to state once again that drivers need the opportunity of eight hours of uninterrupted sleep and then adopt regulations that allow drivers and carriers to ignore that need. Time will tell whether the effects on team operations will be as severe as predicted, but consistency is important – especially since FMCSA made no change regarding driving time or restarting the clock on cumulative hours.

It’s not over yet. Another legal challenge is inevitable, and it’s far from certain that the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia will see the new rules the way FMCSA does. But the agency has made great strides by eliminating a major contradiction within its own regulatory approach.