Congress didn’t just roll back the restart provision of the hours of the service (HOS) rule; language in the recently passed highway bill could eliminate it altogether. But truckers are being urged to carry on business as usual until a resolution to the apparent new loophole in HOS can be worked out.

Basically, because the Department of Transportation has interpreted that the restart clause in the FAST Act appropriation package “contains no language to direct our industry on a restart provision, then there is no restart provision to abide by,” according to an “urgent” notification emailed late Saturday by the Truckload Carriers Assn. to its members.

“As discussions around this issue remain fluid, we are instructing our carrier members to keep their fleets operating as they have always been as members of Congress seek to reach an agreement on the best way to proceed,” says the TCA notice, signed by Chairman Keith Tuttle and President John Lyboldt.

The alert comes after the American Trucking Assns. informed TCA of the matter last week. An ATA white paper on the issue explains that, at the end of January, ATA was approached by “key members” of Congress who had been informed by Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx that DOT interprets the highway bill language “in a troubling way.”

At issue are the “bolt-on” provisions to the HOS restart (the two consecutive 1-5 am off-duty periods and the 168 hour restriction) added by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) to the 2013 overhaul of HOS. ATA had lobbied successfully in the spring of 2014 that the “bolt-ons” actually had an adverse impact on safety and productivity by forcing trucks onto the road at peak morning traffic hours. The resulting suspension and rollback to the pre-2013 restart, included by Congress in the DOT’s 2015 budget, also called on FMCSA to produce a study comparing the effectiveness of the two systems.

However, because the study had not been completed by the end of the fiscal year, Congress continued the suspension with language in the highway bill. But, by DOT’s interpretation of the recent legislation, if the study finds the 2013 changes do not meet the standards set by Congress, “the entire restart provision would have to be vacated,” according to the ATA summary.

So ATA has been working with trucking interests to come up a solution to provide “clear guidance and parameters on negotiating positions.”

“If successful, a compromise could limit maximum hours in any 7 calendar days while retaining industry flexibility through use of an unrestricted restart-type provision,” the ATA white paper says. “The Executive Committee took this action with the understanding that while such a compromise could result in some operational challenges for a portion of the industry, it would help ensure the future existence of sufficient weekly work hours to meet freight demand.”

ATA emphasizes that the daily work rules—11 driving hours, 14 on-duty hours, 10 off-duty hours, and the 30-minute rest break—are not affected by the highway bill language and are not “on the table for discussion” as part of any ‘restart-related’ solution.

Additionally, some members of Congress and people in the administration remain concerned about the total possible hours a driver can work in a 7-day period under the simple restart rule. That theoretical 81-hour limit was a major point of objection cited by opponents of the restart suspension.

“ATA and the trucking industry does not want to lose the scheduling flexibility afforded by the simple restart,” the white paper says. “Any compromise solution must not be overly restrictive, but would likely restrict total weekly hours to a limit below that which is currently possible.”

As for the most likely legislative course of action—if a compromise solution can be reached—Congress hopes to append the new HOS provision to the Federal Aviation Administration Reauthorization bill now being debated in the House, or to any extension of the current FAA authorization. If a compromise solution cannot be reached in the very near term, ATA says the organization “is prepared to engage in a fight” to retain the simple 34 hour restart provision.

TCA advises that “it is important to note that as of today, we are continuing to operate as we did yesterday.”

“Please disregard any rumors or misinformation that are currently circulating in the industry,” the TCA notice to members says. “Only when we, as an industry, are provided instructions with which to operate differently will our operations change.”

Fleet Owner has reached out to FMCSA, to the Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance (CVSA), and the Truck Safety Coalition for responses.

The DOT on Tuesday afternoon provided the following statement: "While Congress works on this issue, the Department stands ready to provide assistance as requested."