Unsustainable Debate

Unsustainable Debate

I don't know about you, but I'm fatigued by the hours of service debate.

It's been more than 10 years since Congress ordered the federal government to rewrite outdated regulations governing truck driver work hours, rules written when a highway was a two-lane road and horsepower could still mean horses.

The first attempt collapsed in 2000 in the face of opposition from the trucking industry and consumer advocacy groups. The second attempt was overturned in 2004 when a federal appeals court ruled the government failed to address its impact on driver health. Now the third iteration of the new rules is under attack by its usual opponents - highway safety advocates and consumer groups led by Public Citizen that oppose the general thrust of the rules - and some less typical opponents - owner-operators, shippers and trucking interests that want specific provisions changed.

They face a Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration that seems to have drawn a line in the sand and is fighting hard not to be dragged across it.

The FMCSA recently denied several petitions asking it to reconsider its latest version of the rules and tried to get them written into law. It is still considering a petition from Public Citizen, which can expect a response from the agency anytime this millennium. After all, there are no limits on the hours FMCSA may take to review a petition.

Hours of service is arguably the most important issue before the FMCSA. Tired truckers who exceed allowable hours put other people in harm's way. What's frustrating is the level of polarization that has opponents in this debate deadlocked and heading full-throttle toward the courtroom. To some, a federal court ruling may now seem the best chance to win a final decision on what the HOS rules should allow. But do we really want courts deciding these matters?

It may not be the courts but changing industry dynamics that finally decide this debate. If you can't find drivers for your trucks, does it matter whether someone's allowed to drive them eight, 10 or 11 hours a day? In a recent Traffic World article, Tom Weisz, the founder of TMW Systems and a leading innovator in trucking technology, said the current model of trucking is unsustainable in the long run - meaning 15 or 20 years.

The reason is the driver shortage. And the reasons for the driver shortage remain the same: poor pay, long hours and bad working conditions. "Not much of a lifestyle," as one trucking executive put it.

Trucking for years based its business model on a steady supply of "guys in rubber boots," as a driver once told me. Those guys haven't disappeared; they now take jobs that don't require them to work up to 14 hours a day and spend weeks away from their families. Oh, and they also want more money, hence Heartland Express's recent pay hike.

At the same time, more freight is moving shorter distances in expedited lanes and the high cost of fuel is pushing more long-haul freight toward intermodal rails.

Trucking is changing in ways that are hard to foresee. Let's hope those changes not only help companies hire more drivers but keep tired truckers at home and off the road.