Like most people who have some experience with trucking, I thought the revised hours-of-service (HOS) rules that went into effect in January were a solid step in the right direction. However, someone who's opinion actually counts — the U.S. Appeals Court — didn't agree, so now the revised rules need to be revised.
While no one likes the idea of messing with HOS again, the immediate concern was the very real possibility that the courts would reinstate the 60-year old rules as an interim step to new revisions.
It wasn't just a matter of turning back the clock. Think about all the training and planning that went into the initial transition. And even then it took months for everyone to get on the same page. If you wanted a recipe for chaos as we entered the peak shipping season, that would have been it.
Fortunately Congress stepped in. In a nod to the real world, legislators added an amendment to a highway authorization bill that keeps the current rules in place until next September. By that point, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration is suppose to have new rules ready that will satisfy the courts.
Now that we have a bit of breathing room, there's no time for complaining about the capriciousness of the courts or the ulterior motives of those that mounted the successful court challenge. Instead, trucking also needs to acknowledge the real world by taking an objective look at HOS criticisms and recognize that any new work rules will have to effectively address the issue of managing driver fatigue.
There's a lot at stake here. It's one thing to create regulations that satisfy driver health and highway safety requirements. Today, medical researchers have a solid understanding of the biorhythms that regulate the human body and how work cycles interact with those rhythms. Writing new HOS rules based solely on that research would be the easy way out for FMCSA.
The hard part is creating rules that meet health and safety criteria and still allow trucking to retain the flexibility it must have to efficiently move this country's cargo, and in the process keep the economy healthy. The industry needs to convince both regulators and the public that we have to make the effort to go beyond pleasing the courts. If we don't — and settle for scientifically based rules that ignore the economic impact of an efficient freight transportation system — then everyone ultimately loses.
While trucks are highly visible on the road, the essential service they perform is hidden from most people. If trucking focuses only on the economics of HOS, it will lose this fight. Once again, critics will say that the industry values dollars over lives, and stiff regulation will be seen as the only way to make it tow the line on safety.
A “Trucks Bring It” ad campaign isn't going to be enough to ensure that this next round of HOS reform has a positive outcome for everyone. If trucking wants practical work rules, it will have to honestly address this public concern about the trucks people see, while also making sure they understand how much they depend on the nearly invisible service it provides.