The Federal Motor Carriers Administration’s (FMCSA) new goal of “completely re-writing” hours of service (HOS) regulations within two years is eliciting strong reaction from trucking.

Advocacy group Public Citizen agreed to suspend its ongoing legal challenge to the 34-hour restart and 11 hours of driving provisions in the current rules in exchange for FMCSA’s agreement to send HOS rules back through the regulatory process. FMCSA has promised to prepare a new notice of proposed rulemaking in nine months and to reach a final rule in 21 months. The current rules are to stay in place during that process.

Some trucking experts believe the result will be proposals to push pack available driver hours-- raising transportation costs and reducing productivity. Others contend the effort to change HOS rules will absorb too much of the agency’s time; time that would be better spent in other ways to improve trucking safety.

“My take is this [HOS reform] effort is going to take a lot of work and a lot of time,” John Hill, the immediate past Administrator of the FMCSA, told FleetOwner. “I am a little surprised that there’s not more focus on a effort to mandate EOBRs [electronic on board recorders] as that technology would do a lot more to improve highway safety than just changing the current 11-hour drive time limit back to 10 hours. I think EOBRs is where we need to go to really improve safety.”

Public Citizen and other groups – notably Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, the Truck Safety Coalition, and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters – have argued that scientific studies do not support the retention of the 11th hour of driving and 34-hour restart provisions, and that those provisions put driver health and public safety at risk.

Hill, however, contends that such claims overlook the steady fall in truck-related fatalities since the new HOS rules were implemented in 2004 as well as what he considers the biggest benefit of those regulations – an increase in the driver off-duty period from 8 hours to 10 hours.

“I find it amusing that they conveniently omit the benefit of a two-hour increase in driver off-duty time,” Hill said. “That increase in rest time has been a huge reason for the safety benefits we’ve seen over the years.”

Large truck fatalities did decline to 4,808 in 2007 – the lowest large truck fatality rate since 1992, and a 4.4% decrease from 2006. Fatalities in large truck crashes also dropped for three years in a row, from 5,240 in 2005 to 4,808 in 2007, a total decline of 8.2%. Injuries are down as well, dropping to 101,000 in 2007 – a 4.7% reduction since 2006 and a big decline from a peak of 142,000 injuries in 1999.

Finally, fatal truck crash rates are way down as well, according to FMCSA’s own data, dropping to 4,190 fatal crashes in 2007; the lowest number since 1993 and a 3.7% decrease from 2006. Large truck fatal crashes have dropped from 4,551 in 2005 to 4,190 in 2007 for a total decline of 7.9%, according to agency figures.

The big concern over HOS reform in trucking, not surprisingly, centers on a potential reduction in available driving hours.

“Tighter regulations will surely be the result – probably moving back to a 10-hour driving limit and some change to the reset provisions,” Noel Perry, a principle with the Transport Fundamentals consulting group, told FleetOwner. “The economics are simple: there will be a productivity hit of 3% to 6% depending on the reset provisions, and this will get ultimately get passed on to the customers.”

The big impact would be on driver utilization, he explained, which is the controlling capacity element in the trucking industry. “Either the fleets will have to raise driver pay to offset the reduction in paid miles or there will be additional pressure on driver availability,” Noel said. “Note that the big effects of such a change are likely to coincide with capacity shortages in the next upturn.”

“This is definitely will be one of those things that will make fleets groan,” Eric Starks, president of research firm FTR Associates, told FleetOwner. “The million-dollar question is what will carry over from the current rules and what won’t. FMCSA said they are going to start from scratch, but does that mean it will largely be a ‘paperwork’ re-write, essentially revising the wording and scientific evidence? If that is the case, then the impact of reform won’t be too great. But if it is more substantial – if they change the available driving hours for example – then the impact will be significant.”

And a total revamp of the driving hours is exactly what Joan Claybrook, president of Public Citizen, is aiming for. She laid out her vision for HOS reform at a “Sorrow to Strength” press conference in Washington D.C. four years ago, calling for much stricter limits on driver hours. “I'd have truckers drive eight hours, not 10 or 11,” Claybrook said at the time. “I’d have them on a circadian rhythm, with a 24-hour cycle, and knock out the 34-hour restart.”

Viewpoints like that worry even titular allies of Public Citizen within the industry, such as the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association (OOIDA), which joined forces with Public Citizen and other advocacy groups to oppose efforts to increase federal truck weight rules earlier this year.

“It’s fair to say we have mixed emotions about HOS rules being back on the table,” Norita Taylor, spokesperson for OOIDA, told FleetOwner. “We aren’t real happy with the current rules, but our members can work with just about anything. We welcome the opportunity to make revisions, but are concerned if any revisions lead to more restrictions on a driver’s work day.”

“There are things that could be improved upon in the current hours-of-service regulations that we’d like changed, but opening up the issue completely also runs the risk of seeing revisions made that do not affect safety even though they are more restrictive,” added Jim Johnston, OOIDA president. He noted, however, that FMCSA has said it won’t propose a specific rule or conduct a rulemaking on just the 11 hours of driving and 34-hour restart provisions.

“This means an opportunity to bring up other hours-of-service issues that affect safety,” added Johnston. “To meaningfully improve highway safety, proposed changes would need to include all aspects of a trucker’s workday that affect the ability to drive safely. This includes loading and unloading times, split sleeper berth for team operations, and the ability to interrupt the 14-hour day for needed rest periods. Truckers need the flexibility to get rest when needed rather than more restrictive rules.”

Clayton Boyce, vp-public affairs & press secretary for the American Trucking Assocns. (ATA), stressed that FMCSA has only agreed to send current HOS rules back through the regulatory process – not necessarily dump them completely.

“They may very well end up back where they started, with their evidence supporting the current rule structure,” he told Fleet Owner. “As we’ve communicated for the last five years, HOS rules, as they are currently constructed, are good safety rules. They are working and the proof is in the industry’s safety performance since they took effect in 2004.”

Boyce pointed to figures from the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) that demonstrate that the trucking industry is now the safest it has been since the DOT began keeping crash statistics in 1975, with the number of truck-involved fatalities on U.S. highways decreasing by 19% since 2004, while the number of injuries decreased by 13% since 2004 – improvements coming over a time span when the number of miles driven by large trucks increased by more than two billion miles.