It isn't inertia that keeps trucking tied to a broken hours-of-service (HOS) system, it's fear of change. And as long as we're insisting here on an honest discussion of the issue, I have to admit that the industry has good reason to fear a major overhaul of the way drivers manage work and rest.

Any time you change basic work rules, you risk severe disruption to well-established and well-understood business models, opening your operations to all sorts of serious problems.

The HOS risks for trucking, especially longhaul operations, all center around productivity, the one area where the industry has made enormous gains over the last few decades that have allowed it to survive and even thrive in a deregulated environment.

The chief worry is that new rules will limit or restrict driving time in ways that erode vehicle and driver productivity--that is, the amount of time spent moving freight. Today's dispatch operations have been fine-tuned to extract every available driving hour from the current HOS rules, and changing those rules means rethinking the entire dispatch system.

While redesigning dispatch is no small undertaking, the cost and effort involved seems insignificant when you look at the implications for the infrastructure. Distribution warehouses, terminals, fueling locations and other fixed points in the supply chain have all been built to maximize freight movement under the 10 and 8 rules.

Change the rules, and you could turn a lot of expensive real estate into productivity choke points. Moving those sites to fit new rules would not only involve a good deal of cost, but would also take years to accomplish.

Driver pay is another serious concern. The truckload industry has been struggling for years to increase driver earnings, and it has succeeded largely by introducing optimization systems that keep drivers moving and increase loaded miles. But if new HOS rules hurt productivity, drivers paid by the loaded mile automatically take a pay cut.

In other segments where drivers are paid by the hour, the worry is that a new service scheme could limit available hours, again imposing a decrease in take-home pay.

Finally, there's the cost of retraining drivers, dispatchers and others to comply with new hours-of-service regulations. There are significant numbers who still have trouble understanding the rules that have been around since the 1930s, so teaching everyone to work with new rules, which can't help but be complex, will be a major challenge.

However, the bottom line is that despite all the very real concerns, trucking can no longer avoid facing the issue of driver fatigue and the ineffectiveness of current HOS rules.

There may be some good news, though. It won't be a “one size fits all” approach, and it will be more complex, but it is possible to have an effective system that doesn't have a negative impact on productivity.

Next month, the benefits of performance-based fatigue management.

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