Jeff Crissey

Updated Apr 23, 2012

Jeff Untitled 1FMCSA misses the bus on HOS rule

Newly introduced studies raise more questions than answers

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s last-minute move to add four new studies to its hours-of-service docket was a point of discussion at last month’s CCJ 2011 Spring Symposium in Birmingham, Ala. The studies are intended to supplement the agency’s assertions that changes to the current hours-of-service rules are necessary to further reduce safety-critical events for interstate carriers, but their late addition and requisite 30-day comment period will cause FMCSA to miss its July 26 deadline to issue a final rule.

Rob Abbott, vice president of safety policy for the American Trucking Associations, addressed some details of the four studies to attending carriers during his presentation on the latest safety regulations. The first two studies added to the docket examine the correlation between specific work schedules such as split shifts and transit bus operator fatigue in Florida, hardly an apples-to-apples comparison to support a regulation targeting interstate commercial carriers since transit bus operators aren’t even subject to the same hours-of-service rules.

Abbott pointed out that the two remaining new studies, both sponsored by FMCSA and published just last month, contradict one another. The Hours of Service and Driver Fatigue: Driver Characteristics Research study showed a significantly elevated risk of a safety-critical event in the 11th hour of driving and suggested that breaks when driving, even on-duty breaks like loading and unloading, were beneficial.

However, according to conclusions in the second FMCSA-sponsored study, The Impact of Driving, Non-Driving Work, and Rest Breaks on Driving Performance in Commercial Motor Vehicle Operations, an hour-by-hour comparison “did not find a statistically significant difference between the 10th and 11th driving hours.” Rather, the study’s authors asserted that safety-critical events were more likely to occur as nondriving activities pushed driving hours toward the end of a 14-hour shift.

Abbott said the court-negotiated July 26 deadline for FMCSA to submit a final rule ultimately has caused the agency to rush the rulemaking process. “When you do a rulemaking, it’s like cooking a home-cooked meal – it has to be well thought out and carefully planned, and you have to make sure you have the right ingredients,” said Abbott. “But the court mandate said they had to do this very quickly, so it was very rushed and wasn’t very well thought out. Really, it’s more akin to fast food. Now what they’re doing is throwing these new studies in the pot trying to make it all come together.” Abbott says that in the likelihood that the final rule ends up back in the court system, FMCSA’s justification for this rule is very tenuous.

So what does the new timeline look like for the impending hours-of-service rule? ATA expects FMCSA to digest industry and advocacy group critiques of the new documents and submit a rulemaking to the Office of Management and Budget later this summer. Abbott stated that a final rule could be handed down later this fall, and FMCSA has indicated plans to publish the final rule by Oct. 28. The effective date could be six to 18 months after the rule is published, depending on how drastic the changes are to the current rule, says Abbott.

Rewriting hours-of-service rules as currently proposed undoubtedly will lead to sharp losses in productivity with questionable net safety benefits. If the final rule is based on contradicting or loosely-related data, it will certainly leave the trucking industry with a bad taste in its mouth.

The truck-involved fatality rate has dropped 36 percent since the current hours-of-service rules were put in place in 2004. In short, the current rules are clearly working, and the industry continues to improve its safety record. Implementation of FMCSA’s Compliance Safety Accountability program and the proliferation of electronic logging devices will further improve on the industry’s safety gains and weed out bad operators.

If you’re reading this on or before June 9, you still have a chance to comment on the last-minute methodology introduced to the docket last month. Visit www.regulations.gov and search for docket number FMCSA-2004-19608.

Jeff Crissey is Editor of Commercial Carrier Journal.

E-mail jcrissey@ccjmagazine.com or call (205) 248-1244.