HOS reform: most efficient way to make highways safer?

Light- and medium-duty fleets can take heart from at least one aspect of the current debate over hours-of-service (HOS) reform: They won't be ignored any longer.

Federal regulators finally seem ready to give up their myopic focus on tractor-trailers. The proposed rules break truck operations down into five categories, three of which cater almost exclusively to drivers of light- and medium-duty vehicles. Local P&D, split-shift, and even drivers whose primary work is not driving would have their very own HOS rules to obey.

I think both the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) and DOT are on the right track with HOS reform. The current rules are ludicrous. The proposed 12-hour driving time, 2-hour rest requirement, and 10 consecutive hours off seems much wiser - especially for drivers of medium-duty rigs, who typically work in the tight confines of urban areas.

But I do have a problem with the fact that both agencies are using HOS reform as part of a larger strategy to cut the 5,200 annual truck-related highway deaths in half by 2010. Don't get me wrong, that's a noble goal. One highway fatality should be intolerable to FMCSA, DOT, and the whole trucking industry.

Problem is, the feds are looking in the wrong place in their effort to save lives. Of the 40,800 people who died on the nation's roads and highways last year, only 5,203 were involved in truck-related accidents. A little over 12%. And out of those 5,203, DOT estimates that 755 are directly related to fatigue on the part of truck drivers. That's only 14% of all truck-related fatalities and less than 2% of overall fatalities.

Let's go a step further. FMCSA estimates that its proposed HOS revisions will prevent 115 truck-related highway fatalities. Those 115 lives represent just 15% of the fatalities caused by truck driver fatigue, and only 2% of all truck-related highway deaths. In the big picture, the proposed HOS rules will prevent less than 3/10ths of 1% of the 40,800 lives lost every year on our nation's highways.

I'm not saying it isn't worth pursuing HOS reform. If even one life is saved, it pays for itself. But I am questioning why the same due diligence isn't being applied to the general public.

Everyday motorists (like me, I might add) can drive when they want, day or night, on little sleep. We don't have state and federal inspectors checking our logbooks or making sure our equipment is safe to operate.

Heck, the federal government allowed states to raise speed limits to 65 mph - or greater - several years back, which has contributed to more highway deaths. Trucks, however, still must drive at 55 mph.

Let me leave you with this thought. FMCSA and DOT estimate that it will cost the trucking industry $3.4 billion over the next 10 years to comply with its proposed HOS revisions. Both expect, however, to save society as a whole $6.8 billion by preventing 2,600 crashes, 115 deaths, and 2,995 injuries.

There's another plan in the works that would reap $7 billion in savings and prevent 4,000 highway deaths, plus 100,000 injuries per year. What is it? Merely raising seat belt use among motorists from 70% to 85%. That's it. A 15% increase in seat belt use would save 4,000 lives in one year - close to double what DOT and FMCSA want to achieve from trucking over a decade.

All it requires is a federal law mandating seat belt use. In the 20 states that have mandatory seat belt laws, use has increased 15%. Why can't we do that on a national basis? Why must we always look in the wrong place to save the most lives?