Trucking Industry Grumbles about New Hours of Service Rules

On July 1, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA)’s new trucking rules went into effect, limiting the number of hours a trucker could be on the road. As expected, the trucking industry has complained that the new Hours of Service (HoS) rules will make it harder for them to make a profit and will raise prices on goods that have to be shipped. Their response is to be expected, but the new rules are a reasonable compromise and they are a good thing for everything, truckers included.

A Reasonable Compromise

An FMCSA press release highlights the primary provisions of the new law that are going into effect, which are three:

  • Truckers must take a 30 minute break within the first 8 hours of driving
  • Truckers can only restart their clock once per 168-hour week
  • Restart must include two night periods between 1-5am

In every case, these provisions represent an attempt at compromise between what researchers think will be safest and what trucking companies want, and in every case the provisions are backed up by scientific evidence. The trucking industry has nonetheless filed lawsuits challenging these provisions.

For example, the law still allows truckers to drive for 11 hours a day, after an increase from 10 in 2003. Originally, policymakers wanted to reduce the driving day limit back to 10 hours a day, but there was no scientific evidence that doing so would reduce accidents, so they allowed the limit to remain at its current state.

Public Citizen and other safety groups have protested the retention of the11-hour driving day, and have filed their own lawsuits.

Give ‘Em a Break!

A mandated 30-minute break seems like a reasonable compromise between optimizing safety and recognizing that drivers want to increase profit by staying on the road. According to studies, off-work breaks led to a 50% reduction in risky events after the break. However, the benefit is short-lived, lasting only for an hour or so after the break.

It seems that if the FMCSA were truly prepared to sacrifice productivity for safety, it would mandate a system like what the American Automobile Association (AAA) recommends: a 15-minute or so break every 2 hours. The question should be: is the FMCSA mandating enough breaks, not are they mandating too many.

Turn the Clock Back

Truckers are only allowed to work 70 hours before they have to take some time off, specifically a 34-hour “restart” break. The goal of the one-restart-per-168-hour limit is to make sure that drivers really are only working 70 hours a week. Without limiting the restart period to once per 168-hour week (as under the previous HoS rules), drivers were able to crowd in more 11-hour driving shifts to work more than 80 hours a week. It also increased incentive for drivers to crowd their schedule, which meant that they were driving at all hours of the day and night. By shifting their sleeping and driving patterns completely out of keeping with the day-night cycle, these drivers were more likely to become fatigued.

Research shows that grueling 80-hour a week schedules are not good for workers. And they’re ultimately not good for employers, because they lead to costly mistakes. It’s reasonable that anyone who operates a potentially deadly piece of machinery like an 80,000-pound semi-truck should be expected to work less than 80 hours a week. As should anyone performing surgery, writing prescriptions, or delivering babies—but that’s a different issue entirely.

A Good Night’s Sleep (or Two!)

The new rule that requires restart periods to include two night periods has caused some complaints among night drivers. And this is the rule that has probably the weakest scientific basis. Although there is some evidence that most people can’t fully adjust to working at night, there is also evidence to support that if people are going to work at night, they do better if they always work at night. By mandating drivers to sleep at night on their off hours, it could create problems for some night-delivery drivers.

As the FMCSA points out, drivers with families are likely to spend at least part of their off-days awake, but it seems illogical to mandate this provision on the basis of what some drivers are expected to do.

Onerous New Regulations or Preventing Externalized Costs?

Trucking companies are expected to balk at this type of regulation. It costs them money (the new HoS is expected to cost them $300 million to implement, though they argue the cost is much, much higher). And it will likely cost some long-haul truckers some income. I sympathize with truckers’ complaints, but their anger should not be directed at the FMCSA. No matter what some companies (like McDonald’s) would have you believe, no one should be expected to work 80 hours a week to maintain a reasonable standard of living.

Long-haul trucking has jockeyed its way into its current position of dominance (70% of all freight in the US is carried by trucks), partly by externalizing costs. Externalizing costs is when a business isn’t paying all the costs necessary to maintain its business, such as, in the case of trucking, the interstate highway system and other parts of the infrastructure that are maintained by state and federal funds mostly to encourage and permit interstate trucking.

Another externalized cost is fatal trucking accidents, which cost us about $39 billion in 2011, more than 99% of which is borne by society at large and the family of the deceased. Trucking company revenue in the US was more than $600 billion dollars in the US in 2011. Considering the large costs we bear for them, it seems reasonable to ask them to pay half a percent of one year’s revenue to implement this change for safety.

In its testimony “The Impacts of the DOT’s Commercial Driver Hours of Service Regulations,” the American Trucking Association disputed practically every one of the FMCSA’s numbers about the regulatory change except for one: that the changes would save 19 lives every year. In fact, the words “life” or “lives” never appear in the testimony. Why the omission? Because some things matter to the trucking industry and some do not.