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Our agency found no justification to change the rules.” –John Hill, administrator, Federal Motor Carrier Administration

Well, now it’s final; a done deal; in the books – for the hotly-contested revision to hours of service (HOS) rules issued by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) way back in 2004 are now the law of the land, remaining largely unchanged as well.

In a nutshell (though we’re probably all bored to tears reading this for the umpteenth time) here are the key parts of the now-finalized HOS regulations:

• 14 hours on-duty; 10 hours off-duty; 11 hours maximum driving time;

• 60-hours/7-days or 70-hours/8-days cumulative cap for total on-duty time;

• On-duty clock reset to zero after 34 hours of continuous off-duty time;

• No nighttime or weekend restrictions.

These are the same rules FMCSA put into effect back on Jan. 4, 2004 – except for the “split sleeper berth” provision that allowed a driver to split up the 10-hour off-duty time into two rest periods totaling 10 hours, one of which had to be at least 2 hours long. That part of the HOS revision got ditched after one of many court challenges and despite efforts by several industry groups, notably the Owner Operator Independent Drivers Association back in 2005, never got restored.

Of the 900 comments FMCSA received as part of the interim final rulemaking process, John Hill, the agency’s administrator, said a good chunk of them were about the split-sleeper provision. “It’s still very much an issue,” Hill said in a conference call with reporters yesterday.

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“Our concern was that, under the old rules, drivers could keep extending their 15 hour work day by using sleeper berth rest periods,” he explained. “We were concerned that might reoccur if we retained a sleeper berth provision. So we stayed with the firm 14 hour work day – you can’t extend it. You must stop.”

I must say, though, it’s quite something to be sitting here, writing about an HOS final rule. I mean, this whole process began over EIGHT years ago, when then-administrator Julie Cirillo introduced the then newly formed FMCSA’s first attempt at HOS reform – rules that had remained unchanged since 1933. THAT first go around was a disaster, to say the least – proposing FIVE different HOS packages in an attempt to make the rules more flexible for different kinds of trucking applications. Needless to say, everyone hated the idea – truckers and the anti-trucking lobby alike – and the effort quickly died.

Under the tenure of Joseph Clapp, who replaced Cirillo following the election of President Bush, the HOS rules that are new finalized came into being. Those went into effect on Jan. 4, 2004, and quickly got bogged down in a series of court battles launched by Public Citizen and other so-called advocacy groups – battles that began to focus more and more on minutiae and the procedural processes FMCSA used to develop the rules in an effort to overturn them.

But the rules survived those challenges and are now finalized – that is unless President Obama’s administration decides to re-address them. It would take a lot of time and resources to do so, both of which are in short supply due to the economic crisis we’re in, but you never know.

Still, despite all of the back and forth over the years, these are rules the industry can live with – indeed, since 2004, truckers are not only making them work, safety isn’t being compromised one whit by them, as many so-called advocates claimed would happen.

“Our science is meticulous and our analysis exhaustive so that we can deliver definitive results: more alert and efficient drivers, safer roads, and even fewer fatalities,” said Hill – and the numbers back him up.

For example, the truck-car crash fatality rate declined 12%, from 2.57 per 100 million miles in 2000 down to 2.25 million miles in 2006. Truck-car crash fatalities are also way down, from 5,240 deaths in 2005 down to 4,808 last year. Fatigue as a factor in truck-car collisions remains stable, Hill noted. In 2000, fatigue was a factor in 2.2%, dropping to a low of 1.5% in 2001 and 2006. Last year it was 1.9% – well within the highs and lows established since 2000.

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The big issue, of course, is how many crashes occur in that 11th hour of driving. Many safety groups claimed we’d see a big increase since the new rules upped allowable driving time from 10 hours a day to 11. 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. That’s pretty compelling evidence, if you ask me.

“The biggest advantage of these rules is that they follow the optimal 24-hour circadian rhythm wake/sleep cycle,” Hill told reporters. Under the old rules, truckers were on duty for 15 hours, could drive for 10, and were off duty for eight hours. That added up to 23 hours, skewing their time clock as their week progressed. The new rules not only puts them on a 24 hour clock, it shortened their work day by an hour and boosted off-duty time by two hours.

“These rules are crafted to match what we know about drivers’ circadian rhythms and the real world work environment truckers face every day,” he said.

Now, one thing bugged me in all of this – did the recent economic downturn skew the numbers in any way? I mean, with less freight being hauled and carriers going out of business (some 1,900 this year alone according to the American Trucking Association) all adding up to fewer trucks on the road, could compromise the data. Hill told me he doesn’t think so.

“Much of our analysis was done before the downturn,” he explained to me. “A lot of the data we used to look at the safety impact of the rules is from 2006 and 2007. Also, we’ve factored in economic fluctuations into our calculations over the last 10 to 12 years to eliminate how that impacts our data.”

Hill also thinks this final rule is going remain standing once he leaves and a new administrator takes over in January. “There was strong objection back in 2006 but we don’t see that now – there doesn’t seem to be interest in fighting this,” he said. “We’ll just have to watch this play out and see what happens.”

Indeed. It’s been a long trip with these rules up till now. We’ll have to see if the journey continues under a new administration next year.

What's Trucks at Work?

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

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