Q: We’re a motor carrier, and speaking for myself, I’m appalled at what’s going on in Washington that’s going to kill our productivity. I’m talking about the new hours-of-service rules proposed by the Department of Transportation’s Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration.
These rules will be a disaster for the motor carrier industry. We already have enough trouble attracting qualified drivers, and the rules will hammer us further by requiring all kinds of additional “rest” times before drivers can get on the road after a shift.
In addition, and worse yet, assuming the courts disallow our appeal of the FMCSA’s action and the rules take effect (as most knowledgeable people say appears likely), we won’t even get a grace period to implement them. The FMCSA has denied the American Trucking Associations’ request for a three-month delay in effectiveness if the appeals court rules against us, meaning they’ll go into effect immediately if that happens.
I know there’s nothing you can do about this, and I don’t really have a question. I guess I’m just venting, but everybody’s going to feel the effect of these unreasonable new rules — shippers as well as carriers. There’s already a capacity problem in the trucking sector because of driver shortages, and this can only make the problem worse.
A: I’m afraid that, as one who has occasion to drive on the same roads used by your trucks, I’m all for these new rules. Your trucks are certainly important, both to commerce and (being that I rely on commerce) to me personally, but that doesn’t mean I care to have one of those trucks abruptly parking itself in my personal vehicle because of driver fatigue.
As I've read in The Journal of Commerce, under the current rules a driver may be behind the wheel as much as 82 hours a week. When you consider that the week contains only 168 hours, that’s very close to 50 percent of the time. The new FMCSA standard will cut that maximum to about 70 hours, still leaving just 98 a week — an average of 14 a day — for a driver to not only sleep but also eat, shower, pay his or her bills, see to his/her family and do everything else in his/her life.
Contrary to what sometimes seems to be managerial belief, drivers aren’t automatons. They’re human beings, subject to the same physiological limits, distractions and other such constraints as anyone else. That means they can’t just keep going and going and going like the Energizer bunny; they run out of steam — and alertness.
Wrangling 20-plus tons of hardware down a highway at speeds of 60, 70, even more miles an hour isn’t light duty. Constant alertness is required, not to mention the reflexes necessary to handle sudden events around one. And a weary driver who spends as much as one of every two hours that goes by controlling that hardware at such speeds isn’t near so likely to have what it takes 100 percent of the time.
Now, I readily acknowledge that the driver shortage is a real problem. But ask yourself why such a shortage exists, especially in times of comparatively high unemployment. In particular, ask yourself why it’s pretty clear that driving a truck isn’t considered a very desirable occupation these days.
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to deduce that a job that can occupy up to half of one’s total time, requires extended absences from home and often uncomfortable accommodations even off duty (ever tried a truck sleeper?), doesn’t pay all that well, is physically demanding and tedious, and has zero social cachet, isn’t likely to attract many folks. Oh, sure, there’s the travel — except that you can scarcely spare a glance at even the passing scenery and don’t get to stay anywhere interesting for long enough to enjoy it.
So what’s the answer? Cut the workweek (as the FMCSA is forcing you to do, at least a little), raise the pay and attract more people. Other industries have done the same, to good effect. Yes, it means costs will go up and, therefore, prices. But keeping them low by treating your workers as galley slaves is, as you’re finding, a self-defeating strategy.
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 BarrettTrn@aol.com. Contact him to order the most recent 351-page compiled edition of past Q&A columns, published in 2010.