Battling HOS … again!

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The Teamsters are opposing this for the same reason the snake opposes the mongoose: They always have, so they always will.” –John Schulz, contributing editor, Logistics Management Magazine, on the international Brotherhood of Teamsters’ latest effort to nullify current hours of service regulations

This is getting ridiculous.

As you know, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, along with so-called “safety groups” Public Citizen, Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, and the Truck Safety Coalition, re-filed a petition for reconsideration of the hours-of-service (HOS) regulations with the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA), seeking – yet again! – to dispatch these rules (put in place back in 2003) and replace them with the previous ones, which were originally formulated back in 1935.

“We have taken this action with the conviction, based on research and scientific data, that longer driving and working hours are unsafe and promote driver fatigue,” the letter the groups sent ot FMCSA said. “We challenged the two major features of the HOS rule that promote even greater driver fatigue: the provision increasing permissible consecutive driving hours from 10 hours to 11 hours and the provision commonly called the ‘34-hour restart,’ which enables drivers to drive and work substantially longer hours per week than under the HOS rules that prevailed until the 2003 HOS rule took effect.”

Ah, yes, the old bromides continue: adding an extra hour of drive time per day is just a time bomb waiting to explode, with truck drivers falling asleep at the wheel left and right while truck-car collisions and fatalities go through the roof.

Just one problem – none of that is happening.

Fatalities in large truck crashes have now dropped for three years in a row, from 5,240 in 2005 to 4,808 in 2007, a total decline of 8.2 percent. Those 4,808 fatalities in ’07, by the way, represent the lowest large truck fatality rate since 1992, and it is a 4.4 percent decrease from 2006.

Large truck fatal crashes also plummeted, falling from 4,551 in 2005 to 4,190 in 2007 – a total decline of 7.9 percent. On top of that 5,000 FEWER people were injured in large truck crashes in 2007 (101,000 overall) compared to 2006, a 4.7 percent reduction – with injuries in large truck crashes dropping steadily since a peak of 142,000 injuries in 1999.

Of course, the BIG bugaboo – the one all the so-called “safety groups” get hot under the collar about – is how many crashes occur in that 11th hour of driving. They predicted with breathless abandon that we’d see a huge increase in accidents within that 11th hour due to the new rules. But, hey, guess what? There’ve been just two in the last three years of available data – none in 2004, one in 2005, and none in 2006.

Even the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics is backing up those statistics, as its research shows the rate of occupational injuries and illnesses for the trucking industry fell by nearly 18 percent between 2004 and 2007.

Um … so how are the new rules contributing to crashes again?

Look, pardon my cynicism, but none of the brouhaha over HOS is even remotely about safety – it’s all about politics, as fellow wordsmith John Schulz at Logistics Management magazine (a guy who’s forgotten more about trucking than I know) so bluntly put in his own blog post about this subject.

“Sensing a political advantage with a Democrat in the White House, the [Teamsters] union and Public Citizen are once again asking for the rule to be modified,” Schulz said. “In general, the argument that these HOS changes have made the highways less safe is just false. The record proves otherwise.”

But to my mind it’s even worse. Look, if you don’t think the new rules work well, fine – but you can’t argue that they don’t help REDUCE fatigue. The HOS rules today gives drivers 10 hours of off-duty time; under the old rules – the ones the Teamsters and Public Citizen seek to restore – drivers only got EIGHT hours of off-duty time. That’s two hours LESS rest. And we want to go back to that?

Drivers also faced a 15 hour work day – 10 hours of drive time plus FIVE hours of loading/unloading time. Well, under the new rules, it got cut to 14 hours with only THREE hours offered for loading and unloading – the type of work that’s a major contributor to fatigue in the first place.

That’s why I term Public Citizen and the others “so-called” safety groups – because if they were really focused on safety, they’d seek to modify the current HOS rules; not throw them out and replace them with outdated regulations that offer less rest and more work.

If the Teamsters and these others REALLY want to work on safety, here are some suggestions. First, stop wasting everyone’s time battling over HOS. Second, pick up the gauntlet on some of these issues below:

Change the truck driver's labor classification: We want truck drivers to be safety-first professionals, understand computers for billing and record-keeping purposes, work a 14 hour day … yet the truck driver’s job still remains classified as “unskilled” by the Department of Labor. If we want to hire and put the best people behind the wheel – people that drive safe, display good interpersonal skills, and intimately understand technology – you cannot designate the truck driver’s job as “unskilled labor.” It doesn’t wash. This designation needs to change, allowing for a major change in pay and benefit requirements for truckers. Driving an 80,000-pound tractor-trailer at 65 mph requires skill – pure and simple. Why don’t we work for that?

Waiting time penalties: Nothing causes more aggravation for driver and leads to more HOS violations than excessive wait times at shipper and receiver docks. I’ve seen wait time’s destructive impact up close – lines of trucks waiting to unload and load as an entire unionized warehouse workforce stops for lunch, or closes up at 5 p.m. on the dot. If the economy demands that trucking must be a 24/7 enterprise, everything that touches trucking must also share that 24/7 burden. Uncompensated wait time forces many drivers back on the road when tired or in violation of HOS rules simply so they can make a living. That is a direct threat to highway safety and so must be addressed. Why aren’t the Teamsters and Public Citizen fighting this?

Mandate safety technology: Former FMCSA Chief Administrator John Hill made a very valid point about trying to get the biggest “bang for the buck” when it came to reducing truck-related highway fatalities – and that came not from focusing on fatigue, but on the wider adoption of safety systems. “Look, every fatigue-related crash death is devastating – I wish we could make them all go away,” he explained in his last press conference with reporters in January. “But you’ve got to look at the total cost-benefit analysis. Is it worth mandating technology to address the cause of 1% to 2% of all fatal crashes [i.e. fatigue]? You need to put safety technology in place where you get the most benefit: roll stability control and adaptive cruise control systems, for example. This is where you can address 30% to 40% of crash causation: from a cost-benefit standpoint, this is what gets you the most bang for the buck.” So, why aren’t the Teamsters and Public Citizen pushing for incentives to get such technology onto ALL commercial trucks? Their voices – joined with those of the trucking industry, which supports the use of incentives to get wider adoption of these technologies – could help make a real dent in trucking related crash statistics.

It would be nice to see movement on these fronts, for they’d really do a whole lot more to improve highway safety from trucking’s angle than this continual wrangling over HOS that leads us nowhere.

But I won’t hold my breath.

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Trucks at Work: Sean Kilcarr comments on trends affecting the many different strata of the trucking industry.

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