Commentary: Hours-of-Service, Years of Debate

Q: I’ve been following, or at least tried to follow, the arguments about the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s hours-of-service rules for truck drivers, but confess that I simply don’t know how to feel about them.

On one side, the carriers, with a lot of shippers backing them, seem to be arguing that the FMCSA is being too conservative about limiting the truckers’ driving time. They say the new rules the agency has announced will hurt productivity and make it harder to meet short deadlines for delivery of goods.

On the other, the pro-safety groups (self-defined) contend the agency is still not limiting drivers enough. The big dispute seems to be over maximum daily driving hours and how to calculate them.

Now, I’m all for highway safety improvement (because I drive on the roads like everyone else), but I also don’t want to see retail prices go up and my products arrive late at their market. You’re an authority in the industry, so can you tell me which side is right? And isn’t there really still a better way to get to both goals?

A: Isn’t there a better way? Hmm, let’s see. Sure! How about air bags? No, not those wimpy ones inside your car, I mean real tough ones on the exterior. Yeah, that’d do it; you get too close to another vehicle, sensors deploy the bags on both of them and instead of “crash!” you get only a big “whump!” and nobody gets hurt. Kind of like the way NASA landed the early rovers on Mars, bounce, bounce, bounce.

Or maybe make all vehicles the same size, like in fairgrounds bumper-car rides. Nobody ever gets hurt at the fair, right? Well, you can’t shrink trucks, because they have to carry the freight, so how about decreeing that no passenger car can be sold if it’s smaller than an 18-wheeler? Families can use the extra space to set up swing-sets for the kids.

Or ...

Oh, never mind. I think you can see that there’s no really good answer. Every time the FMCSA makes another try it just ticks everybody off, there’s another round of litigation, some court decides the agency doesn’t have objectively sound reasons to support what it did, and we’re back to the drawing boards.

Part of the problem is, admittedly, driver fatigue. A tired truck driver is a sloppy truck driver, sloppy truck drivers are more prone to accidents, high-speed accidents have this tendency to kill people — usually the occupants of the much smaller vehicles clobbered by the big trucks. Therefore, we need rules to discourage tired truck drivers.

It’s a laudable goal but, as usual, ill-defined. I can’t speak for you, but, personally, lots of things make me tired, and driving’s only one of them. A driver who abided by the rules but spent his required 10 hours off fighting with his wife is probably a lot less safe than one who illegally took an extra hour or two behind the wheel but had a pleasant rest. If you’re used to early-to-bed, early-to-rise, night driving is your worst scenario; for a night owl like me, get out of my way at 6 a.m.

And so on and so forth. The FMCSA is doing the best it can to strike a balance between the minimal data available, the wide variations among individuals and specific situations and the economic needs of the industry, but it’s flailing. As witness the fact that truck-related highway fatalities as a percentage of overall driving miles haven’t changed significantly in years despite the agency’s best efforts.

Does this mean the agency should just give up? No. But how about drawing a distinction between daytime and night hours behind the wheel (relatively few share my preference for “the music of the night”) and the differences in visibility and concentration required? How about relying on statistical correlation of actual distinctions in what happens on the road rather than hypotheses about what might be happening? I could go on, but you get the idea.

No, these things aren’t politically expedient. But if we as a nation cut down on highway carnage, both sides you mention will shut up. Cut back on accidents, and productivity and safety improve.

The FMCSA continues to nibble at the edges of the real problem. If it’s genuinely trying to fulfill its mandate to improve highway safety, it needs to go by the numbers and do whatever works. That way it can prove itself not only in court, but also in reality, and everybody’s happy.

Consultant, author and educator Colin Barrett is president of Barrett Transportation Consultants. Send your questions to him at 5201 Whippoorwill Lane, Johns Island, S.C. 29455; phone, 843-559-1277; e-mail, Contact him to order the most recent 351-page compiled edition of past Q&A columns, published in 2010.

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