Seventy years is a long time to ride the same old merry-go-round, especially one that throws you off. Over and over again.

To be as blunt as a chrome grille, it's high time trucking jumped off the dead horse that is federal hours-of-service (HOS) regulations and engineer a new way to manage the inherent risk of fatigue when driving commercial vehicles in a 24-hour world.

That truck drivers have been laboring under essentially the same HOS rules since the Great Depression should be enough to give anyone pause — be they truckers, state troopers or anyone in any car on the road.

What's harder still to contemplate is those rules were arguably only slightly more palatable when first issued back in 1937. It should be noted that just a year later, truckers were exempted from the New Deal's Fair Labor Standards Act requiring workers to be compensated for overtime.

TIME WARP

There were far fewer trucks — and cars — on the road back then. Not to mention far less pressure on truckers to meet the delivery schedules demanded by today's just-in-time economy, driven as it is by our better-get-it-here-yesterday society.

The HOS rules were already well past quaint by 1969 when we put our first man on the moon. So many advances have come our way since Neil Armstrong planted his boot on the lunar surface — the PC, the cell phone, the Internet, hey, even HDTV — yet HOS regs remain essentially caught in a frightening time warp.

And as time and technology have marched on, HOS rules have become increasingly divorced from the workaday world of long-haul truckers, and thus essentially unenforceable.

Everyone knows that if drivers did not fudge their federally mandated HOS logs, even more of them — and the motorists around them — would wind up in horrific if not fatal crashes.

On top of all that, being forced to drive while fatigued or pressured to try and cheat the law helps make truck driving a less attractive career choice. That of course only further fuels the driver-shortage crisis that's severely crimping long-haul carriers.

Yet trucking lobbyists remain stalwart in maintaining the regulatory status quo on this issue. Perhaps that's just because they fear any wholesale changes to the hoary HOS rules would bring something much more draconian — read expensive to implement — down on the heads of truck fleet owners.

But what price safety? Given the reams of scientific evidence that fatigue at the wheel kills, the real question is should trucking as an industry care enough about the safety of its 3-million plus drivers and the millions of its ultimate customers its drivers share the road with to do the right thing and work for meaningful reform of HOS?

Pushing for a wholesale change will require trucking stakeholders to jettison a load of long-nurtured misconceptions and then embrace some very sound thinking.

The chief thing that must be accepted first, plain and simple, is no one can really afford to monkey around and downplay the impact of operator fatigue when it comes to big rigs.

FATIGUE FACTOR

According to the Truck Safety Coalition advocacy group, major studies by the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board, Australian researchers, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and the AAA Foundation, as well as surveys of drivers themselves “clearly indicated that the contribution of fatigue to commercial vehicle crashes and fatal truck crashes is far greater than claimed by the government and industry. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA)…found that fatigue directly contributes to about 15% of all fatal truck crash deaths and serious injuries each year.”

Hard to argue with those stats. The real rub is the potential solutions to this mess are not novel or new.

One such approach to driver fatigue management is already being implemented in another country. Yet another has been adopted by at least one progressive fleet here in the U.S. and others may soon follow that lead.

Both of these approaches are built on extensive research into how the human body works — and does not work — when placed under shift-work and round-the-clock labor conditions.

REFORM DOWN UNDER

The National Transport Commission (NTC), an independent statutory body, is charged with assisting the Australian Commonwealth, state and territorial governments in achieving their jointly agreed goals for the regulatory reform of transport nationwide. A key reform NTC is tackling, and by all indications with the gusto sorely lacking at our FMCSA, is “heavy vehicle driver fatigue.”

According to NTC, reforms approved by Australia's Transport Ministers will “ensure Australia can service the growing road freight task efficiently, while ensuring drivers return home safely to their families.” How's that for straight talk?

Two months ago, just as Fleet Owner began digging into the HOS issue, the Australian Transport Council (ATC) approved new national laws to manage truck driver fatigue. NTC is working with the various States and Territories toward a common implementation date, while the Council of Australian Governments has set a target deadline of February 2008.

It should be noted the Australian Ministers also “supported the objective of progressively working towards national standards for rest areas.” That makes sense since it does little good to enable drivers to take their proper rest periods, yet have nowhere for them to do so safely.

Key elements of the Australian program include:

  • New work and rest limits (supported by fatigue experts);

  • “Accreditation schemes” to provide rewards for fatigue-prevention efforts;

  • Guidelines for managing driver fatigue;

  • Chain of Responsibility provisions;

  • Strengthened record-keeping;

  • Close alignment with OH&S (akin to our OSHA) laws.

According to NTC, the reform changes the focus from regulating hours to managing fatigue. “Working long hours and fighting your body clock at night is widely recognised as high risk,” states NTC. “Operators and drivers who ‘do the right thing’ by managing those risks through accreditation schemes will have a greater say in when they can work and rest.”

In addition, NTC stated bluntly, “Drivers are currently carrying the can for the failures of others. Under this reform, customers who cause fatigue by setting unrealistic schedules and leaving tired drivers waiting around to load or unload could face prosecution and tougher penalties.”

In other words, those who wish more flexible driving hours must be willing to accept both greater complexity and more responsibility.

FLEXIBLE APPROACH

At the heart of the Australian hours reform is its multi-option approach that gives truckers a choice of how to operate:

  1. Standard Hours (or “default”) allows 12 working hours a day;

  2. Basic Fatigue Management allows 14 working hours a day with accreditation;

  3. Advanced Fatigue Management allowed with accredited risk management ;

(See “The Down Under Approach” for details on the Australian proposal.)

NTC stated that providing multiple options “recognises the diversity of the road transport industry and the need for flexibility. The staged approach of the three options has been designed to enable operators to progress to more flexible options, commensurate with their operational requirements, by ensuring that the costs and difficulties are minimised.”

According to NTC, “Operators will adhere to agreed standards and operating limits in return for maximum work and minimum rest hours defined by the regulatory agency according to the operator's specific fatigue risks and fatigue management system.

Meanwhile, back up here in the land of E Pluribus Unum, there is little likelihood such a relatively complex scheme would survive the onslaught of trucking lobbyists.

Yet the Australian reform clearly illustrates that truck driver behavior can be legislated in a manner that is not prescriptive but performance-based. Only then can HOS laws reflect real-world realities, which will make them practical, effective and enforceable.

But given that the U.S. trucking industry dwarfs that of Australia by every measure, including it can be ventured, political influence, something simpler in structure yet still performance-based would have the best shot at becoming law.

One U.S.-based workplace fatigue expert believes his firm has developed an approach to fatigue management that points a way “through the thicket” that is today's HOS boondoggle here in the U.S.

CEO Martin Moore-Ede, MD, PhD, says his firm, Stoneham, MA-based Circadian Technologies, does extensive research and develops solutions for firms to “effectively use extended hour operations to compete in the global 24/7 economy.”

Moore-Ede, who's published over 125 scientific articles and 10 books “on the human aspects of 24/7 operations,” takes a businesslike and research-based slant on HOS reform.

“The Australian initiative is the right approach in general,” Moore-Ede tells FleetOwner. “Companies willing to put in the [risk management] effort can operate under more flexible rules. The idea is that if prescriptive rules are flawed [it makes sense to] put in performance-based requirements. However, you can't have greater flexibility [of rules] alone or there will be abuse.”

BETTER THAN FICTION

Moore-Ede contends driver logs — those works of fiction that remain the unintentional pressure-relief valve for drivers under today's rules — could be tossed aside altogether and replaced by having fleets use what he terms a “Fatigue Risk Score,” an approach developed from extensive research.

To set a fleet up to manage driver workloads by fatigue risk, Circadian downloads a copy of the duty-rest logs of all drivers over a representative week or month. Using a proprietary software program, the firm then calculates a risk score for every driver.

The risk scores range from 0 — the starting point of a truck trip — all the way up to 100, which is not a good place to be at if you're behind the wheel.

“The average driver is at 40,” Moore-Ede explains. “When someone's score reaches 60 or higher, the risk of that person having DOT-reportable accidents, as well as slips and falls, increases exponentially.

He says that by reworking the dispatching and duty-rest schedules of the drivers whose risk scores are above average through continuous scheduling optimization, fleets can reduce accident rates and injuries by up to 75%.

Lafayette, LA-based Dupre Transport LLC, a $100-million asset-based logistics provider, seeks to reduce the impact of fatigue on its van and tank drivers “by holding our team accountable” with Circadian Technologies' fatigue-measurement and risk-reduction system.

Moore-Ede points out that while Dupre is using the Circadian approach right now as an adjunct to its other award-winning safety programs, he is working with other fleets that would like to be granted an exemption from HOS and implement extensive fatigue-management measures in place of the current rules.

“There's a mechanism within [FMCSA rules] under which an operator can apply for exemption from HOS,” he states. “In return for that exemption, the fleet would have to put in well-designed fatigue-management procedures as an alternative means of controlling the risk.

“Via the exemption route, those fleets that want to be safety leaders will get some relief from HOS rules,” continues Moore-Ede. “They'll also benefit from improved safety and gain a business advantage as operations that can't or won't follow their lead will end up in a competitive disadvantage. And that's where those riskier operators should be, as they are the ones causing most of the [safety] problems.”

It is one thing to celebrate your strengths — and that's something trucking is quite accomplished at, judging by the lobbying prowess it has brought to bear against true HOS reform. But the true test of character is how you examine and — above all — address your weaknesses.

THE MORAL HIGH ROAD

There's no question but trucking as an industry should face up to the colossal decades-long failure that is HOS and work to forge public policy that would make its own drivers and the motoring public far safer than they are now.

Barring that, individual fleet owners can choose to head down the moral high road — and the one that may well pay them more in reduced costs — and mount their own campaigns to slash the risk that driver fatigue poses to highway safety.

Perhaps then by such example trucking will ultimately convince federal authorities that highway safety will be far better served with a performance-based approach aimed at minimizing driver fatigue than by sticking with dangerously outmoded prescriptive regulations on hours of service alone.

Only time — and whether trucking has the courage to force change — will tell.

The Down Under Approach

After six years of research, study and public comment, Australia's National Transport Commission formally released new “heavy vehicle driver fatigue management” reforms in February that are intended to take effect in early 2008. The goal is to improve both road safety and trucking productivity by throwing out the one-rule-fits-all approach for a more nuanced scheme based on current science and practicality.

The key elements include: a three-tiered approach to driving hours that offers operational flexibility in return for greater personal and fleet accountability for managing fatigue; spreading responsibility for fatigue management to every participant in the supply chain; replacing the logbook with a more detailed work diary; and revised penalties and sanctions that could go as high as $50,000.

Here are the highlights of the new Australian approach to managing truck-driver fatigue:

THREE DRIVING OPTIONS

  • Standard hours. Essentially allows drivers to follow existing rules and limits. Drivers can work (both driving and non-driving duties) up to 12 hours in a 24-hour period for a maximum of up to 72 hours in seven days. They must take a break of seven continuous hours in that 24-hour period, as well as prescribed short breaks based on the length of the driving period. This is considered the “default” option and requires no training or accreditation.

  • Basic fatigue management. More flexible minimum rest and maximum work hours with increased fatigue-management responsibility for drivers. Drivers can work up to 14 hours in a 24-hour period for a maximum of 144 work hours in a 14-day period, with no more than 84 hours worked before a continuous 24-hour period without work. Drivers and fleets must undergo training and receive accreditation to operate under this option.

  • Advanced fatigue management. “Normal” work limits and fatigue “flag points” are set individually for each driver taking into account type of work, frequency of rest periods, cumulative effects of fatigue over extended periods, and both time of day and quality of sleep. Drivers are given flexibility to work within those normal limits and manage their own fatigue. “Flag points” can be exceeded under certain circumstances with advanced planning and approval. Outer limits for “normal” are a minimum of four 24-hr. periods off in 28 days, a maximum of 154 work hours in 14 days, and a maximum of 288 work hours in 28 days. Drivers and fleets must be accredited under published training and medical standards to use this option.

RESPONSIBILITY

  • Liability for violating rules is shared by all parties in the supply chain who are required to take all “reasonable steps” to manage heavy vehicle driver fatigue. For example, NTC says “customers who set unrealistic schedules and leave tired drivers sitting around to load or unload will face heavy fines.” Similarly, fleet managers will be held responsible for poor scheduling or inadequate driver training, drivers for failing to follow fatigue management plans and receivers for lack of proper rest facilities for drivers.

LOGBOOKS

  • A universal work diary replaces current hours-of-service logbooks. It provides a record of all activities affecting a driver's fatigue level, not just driving and rest times. It is the foundation for creating the chain of responsibility for all parties in the supply chain.

PENALTIES

  • Fines and sanctions are based on the seriousness of risk posed by a specific infraction. There are three proposed categories — administrative offences, substantial offences and severe-risk offences. At the highest end, NTC says it foresees court-imposed fines reaching up to $50,000 for the most serious.

“This is a world-first reform which focuses on the root cause of driver fatigue, rather than simply regulating hours,” says Nick Dimopoulos, NTC's chief executive.