Trucking will lose big if it doesn't derail proposed changes in hours-of-service regs

Failure is not an option," Gene Krantz, the flight director of Apollo 13 told his ground troops when all hell broke loose on that star-crossed moon shot.

Considering all that's at stake if the federal hours-of-service (HOS) proposal goes through, that unequivocal mission statement should also ring out as a call to arms for truck fleet managers.

With the possible exception of industry deregulation 20 years ago, no single government action has threatened so many far-reaching consequences for trucking.

As the president of one top-rank truckload carrier puts it, if the HOS proposal as now written becomes law, trucking won't gain any safety benefits - and, what's more, stands to lose 30 years' progress in productivity and to suffer a major economic blow.

Indeed, truckload and other longhaul operations would be hardest hit by the new Dept. of Transportation (DOT) rule. But the proposal gives no segment of trucking an exemption.

What it does serve up is an almost Byzantine set of different rules for five driver "types": longhaul, regional, local split-shift, local, and work vehicle.

Besides segmenting the rules by driver type, key provisions include:

* Limiting drivers to 12 hours of on-duty time - with no distinction made between time spent driving and not driving.

* Requiring up to 56 hours of off-duty time after every 60 hours of driving time.

* Mandating electronic onboard recorders for longhaul- and regional-type drivers in place of paper logbooks.

Two bits of good news trucking received on HOS as we went to press were the U.S. Senate's approval of a measure that would kill the proposal, and DOT's extension of the comment period to October 30.

A counterattack can now be launched simultaneously on two fronts. Industry lobbyists can work over Senate and House members to pass veto-proof legislation to squash the proposal. And trucking's rank and file can use the next few months to petition DOT to make common-sense changes to its proposal.

But it's the latter effort - changing rather than junking the proposal outright - that holds the most promise. Bear in mind that if the beast can't be killed by legislative action, it can still be de-fanged in the now-extended comment stage of the rulemaking process.

Toward that end, Herb Schmidt, president of Contract Freighters Inc. (CFI), says he made his case to DOT representatives during a public hearing last month.

"I told the people from DOT this proposal is the result of bright, well-meaning people creating poor regulations because they didn't solicit input from the people who do the jobs affected," relates the head of the Joplin, Mo.-based international truckload carrier.

"Despite good intentions, the HOS proposal was flawed from the get-go," he continues. "There was a veil of secrecy over this program and then it was dropped on us like a hammer. And as written, it flat-out won't work."

Schmidt points out that the "whole idea" behind HOS reform was to reduce truck-related fatalities by 50% over the next 10 years. "Instead," he argues, "this will increase the number of commercial vehicles on the road by 20 to 25%."

Of course, along with those vehicles, the industry - already hard-pressed to keep its trucks manned - would have to find and train more drivers.

As for the proposal's impact on trucking productivity, Schmidt says unequivocally, "It will set back the industry's progress by at least 30 years."

That's why Schmidt says trucking has "no choice but to get the proposal changed." Asked how that should be done, he offers a common-sense solution: "There are thousands of million-mile safe drivers out there who can tell us and DOT how they accomplish what we both want - to continue the decade-long trend of fewer truck-related accidents."

Schmidt believes the most objectionable part of the new rule is the mandatory so-called weekend off - which could last from 32 to 56 hours - for drivers once they complete five consecutive workdays.

"This kind of time off makes no sense," says Schmidt. "The body can't store sleep. We need the 24-hour restart of the driver's clock. The forced weekend will instead fatigue the driver more. You can only eat, sleep and read a book for so long before boredom - and then fatigue - sets in."

According to Schmidt's analysis, under the HOS proposal, driver wages would have to increase 40-50% just to keep them in the pay range they are now. On top of that, he foresees the "boredom factor" taking its toll on retention and recruitment efforts.

And, as noted before, 20-25% more trucks will be needed to provide customers the same level of service they experienced before HOS reform. That would pile on fleets the costs of more drivers, more training, more equipment, and more infrastructure for taking care of all those new and old drivers and trucks.

It sounds grim, but Schmidt says there is good news. "The DOT people are listening and trying to understand why we are so concerned about this," he remarks. "I may be an optimist, but at the hearing I attended, everyone was echoing the same thoughts without any of it being orchestrated. If DOT's listening - and it's hard to imagine they're not - the proposal will change significantly."

Although the trucks in the private fleet he manages stick to established runs, Tommy Williams is equally concerned about HOS reform.

As transportation manager for Wilsonart International, the Temple, Tex.-based decorative-laminate manufacturer, Williams oversees a fleet of 60 team-driven tractors and 84 trailers that deliver product to 17 distribution centers in the U.S and Canada.

He agrees with Schmidt that the lost weekend provision is unworkable. "It will only force drivers to run illegally, even if it's just so they can get home to shut down."

Wilsonart currently employs 115 drivers. "If this goes through," Williams points out, "we'll have to cut their hours and hire 20 more drivers. We'd also have to buy another 10 team-operated tractors or we'd have to switch to slip-seating instead of assigning tractors to our teams."

Williams figures he won't experience the dispatching nightmare truckload and LTL fleets face. "We could probably schedule around the shutdown provisions. But it would seriously impact the just-in-time deliveries we now provide."

And he says the effect on driver morale won't be pretty, either. "Drivers are not going to want to sit in a rest stop or even a truck stop for hours on end, especially if they see their pay drop 15-20%."

So, in the words of Herb Schmidt, "to save trucking as we know it," get your comments in to DOT. File comments electronically with the form at http://dmses.dot.gov/submit/ BlankDSS.asp. By mail, use the following address (making sure to write "Docket No. FMCSA-97-2350" at the top of your comments): Docket Clerk, U.S. DOT Dockets, Room PL-401, 400 Seventh St. SW, Washington, D.C. 205900-0001.