Interim Hours

Interim Hours

Copyright 2007, Traffic World, Inc.

The most important word in the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration''s new interim final rule may be the first word in the title - interim.

If there is one thing evident in the years-long attempt by the federal government to write new driving work rules for the trucking industry, it is that whatever the FMCSA does will face a challenge in a court where this agency has a very poor record of success.

That''s important for trucking industry officials to keep in mind as they applaud a rule that keeps in place some of the very provisions they criticized in 2004, provisions some officials argued at the time would endanger productivity and undercut trucking economics.

It''s a different story now, of course, with three years of this rule behind us and truckers and shippers alike happy with the benefits of working rules that are "good for trucking and good for the economy," as Robert Voltmann, president and CEO of the Transportation Intermediaries Association put it.

Shippers also have looked at this as largely an economic debate. "An immediate vacation of the HOS rule provisions at issue would produce supply chain disruptions and complications," the Retail Industry Leaders Association said in a filing with FMCSA this year. "Effects could include increased transportation costs, spoilage and at least temporary shortages."

But Voltmann also points to the larger issue - for trucking and the economy - when he notes, "What is really important is that the industry has predictability with this rule."

The industry certainly has predictability for the next few months, but with new challenges hovering over the FMCSA ruling it''s hard for anyone to argue that the decision the agency issues last week does much more than buy time for the agency, not to mention shippers and truckers. Until there is a definitive ruling from a court - and keep in mind, the U.S. Court of Appeals has struck down the general outlines of this hours of service rule twice by unanimous decisions - the agency has merely triggered something like a 12-month restart provision on this debate.

That means that the past four years have been something of a grand experiment on new HOS provisions, bringing the agency, the industry and its critics the sort of operating data the FMCSA lacked when it first came out with its 11/34 rule.

That data, the agency says, shows highways safer and the number of fatigue-related fatalities in the 11th hour of driver work to be achingly small.

But safety groups have a different take on highway statistics, pointing to numbers that suggest growing safety problems with large trucks on the highways.

Now that the FMCSA has restarted the legal clock on hours of service, the agency has another chance to look at the full range of statistics and arguments, to respond to all of them and maybe even engage critics of the 11/34 rule to answer the question some in trucking have asked - just what do they think the HOS rule should say?

That could bring this debate an hour closer to resolution.