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In July 2013, new provisions took effect for truck driver hours of service (HOS) that limit the maximum average work week for truck drivers to 70 hours, a decrease from the previous maximum of 82 hours. The HOS rules allow truck drivers who reach the maximum 70 hours of driving within a week to resume driving if they rest for 34 consecutive hours, including at least two nights when their body clock demands sleep the most (from 1-5 a.m.).

Truck drivers under the new HOS provisions are also required to take a 30-minute break during the first eight hours of a shift. With some exceptions, HOS regulations apply to any commercial motor vehicle used in interstate commerce weighing 10,001 pounds or more; has a GVWR or GCWR of 10,001 pounds or more; is designed or used to transport 16 or more passengers (including the driver) not for compensation; or is transporting hazardous materials in a quantity requiring placards.

The Controversies

The American Trucking Associations (ATA) launched an immediate challenge to several of the new HOS provisions, and by August 2013, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Washington D.C. Circuit issued a ruling that upheld most of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s (FMCSA) rules but struck down a provision requiring short-haul drivers to take 30-minute off-duty breaks. At the time,

Dave Osiecki, ATA senior vice president of policy and regulatory affairs, said, “While we are disappointed that the court chose to give unlimited deference to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s agenda-driven rulemaking, the striking down of the short-haul break provision is an important victory.”

Since then, pushback against some of the new provisions has continued, led by a “centerpiece” amendment promoted by Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, that aims to suspend the new 34-hour restart rule. Collins’ (and the ATAs’) argument is that the mandate for a 34-hour restart reduces productivity, cuts drivers income and puts more trucks on the roads during peak commuter times, snarling traffic. Proponents of the Collins amendment also argue there is a lack of “good science” that presents a compelling case in how implementing new 34-hour restart regulations will improve traffic safety.

In June 2014, the Senate Appropriations Committee voted 21 to nine in favor of adding the Collins amendment to the annual transportation appropriations bill. The amendment calls for suspending the current 34-hour restart provision while the FMCSA studies the impact of the HOS rule. However, debate on the appropriations bill never finished on the Senate floor.

Congress later passed a temporary appropriations measure that does not contain the Collins proposal. The annual appropriations process resumes after the November mid-term election, and it may include more debate on the 34-hour restart provision.

What Collins has in mind is a yearlong study comparing the work schedules and fatigue of two groups of drivers: those operating under the pre-2013 HOS provision and those operating under the new 34-hour restart provision. The study groups must be large enough to produce statistically significant results, and the study also must compare five months of work schedules and safety critical events, such as crashes and near crashes, for fleets of all sizes and types of operations. The language specifically mentions long-haul, regional and short-haul, flat-bed, refrigerated, tank and dry-van. Researchers would track fatigue and safety-critical events using electronic logging data, a psychomotor vigilance test that gauges the impact of fatigue on a person’s reactions, actigraph watches and cameras or other onboard monitoring systems.

In Public View

In the midst of the Senate debate over the restart provision, comedian Tracy Morgan (Saturday Night Live and 30 Rock) was critically injured and a fellow comedian killed when a tractor-trailer driver crashed into their limousine, triggering a six-car pileup on the New Jersey Turnpike. According to a criminal complaint, the driver had not slept in more than 24 hours.

The crash brought public attention to the HOS issue. The discussion included references to a National Institutes of Health study in the mid-2000s, which reported that, “Large trucks account for less than five percent of registered vehicles in the United States and only eight percent of the total miles driven, but they are disproportionately involved in passenger vehicle occupant deaths compared with other vehicle types. About 5,000 fatalities and 120,000 injuries per year occur in large truck crashes; 15 percent of these fatalities occur in large trucks, and 78 percent occur in the other vehicles involved.”

As a follow up to that study, the U.S. Department of Transportation reported in 2010, that 15.5 million trucks were operating on highways, where one in eight traffic fatalities involved a collision with a truck, and approximately 130,000 people were injured annually in truck accidents. The report also indicated that driver fatigue was a contributing factor in fatal truck crashes, though the percentage is not clear.

“It’s important that we continue studying the impact of fatigue on commercial drivers and public safety to make our regulations even more effective,” said Anne Ferro, who stepped down in August 2014 as chief of the FMCSA to become president and CEO of the American Association of Motor Vehicle

Administrators. “But this we know right now: suspending the current Hours-of-Service safety rules will expose families and drivers to greater risk every time they’re on the road.”

Restart Objections Continue

While the FMCSA defends the restart provision as a safety regulation improvement based on solid scientific research, some trucking interests continue to object. In a recent editorial opinion for USA Today, Bill Graves, president and CEO of ATA, noted that there was a 22% decline in truck-involved fatalities between 2003 and 2012.

“First, let me state unequivocally that American Trucking Associations supports almost all the hours-of-service rules for professional truck drivers,” Graves said. “We support daily and weekly driving limits, mandatory off-duty time, the daily rest break rule, and the concept of the ‘restart’ provision that prescribes rest periods between work weeks. What we take issue with are limitations on how that restart is used and the process employed to implement those new restrictions.”

Graves went on to say that for the past decade, U.S. truck drivers delivered the vast majority of the nation’s freight with the ability to restart their work weeks by taking at least 34 consecutive hours off.

He called on federal regulators to do more diligent research into the new regulations. “In the past year, these changes have put more trucks on the road during the morning rush hour, a riskier proposition than overnight driving, according to the government’s own statistics,” he said. “The changes reduced productivity. And they disrupted many truck drivers’ chosen sleep and duty schedules, leading some to leave trucking.”

Support for More Research

Certainly, federal safety regulations should be based on sound scientific research, and more study of the impact of the restart rule makes sense. In fact, all sides support more research. FMCSA is preparing a study that will compare the new restart to the old one, which did not have the two-night rest requirement. But the agency wants to do that study while the new provision is in place, whereas trucking industry interests want to suspend it while the study is under way.

It is important to keep a balanced approach to all the objectives that commercial truckers must achieve — from improving driver safety by managing and measuring fatigue and other contributing factors to accidents, to meeting the burgeoning needs of shippers and consumers for goods that are delivered faster and cheaper.

“Right now, sensible regulations are languishing,” Graves said. “These include rules requiring trucks to have electronic logs, or have their speed electronically limited. This will prevent more crashes than this restart rule. But the agency has focused on a rule that potentially hurts safety.”

Mary Shacklett is president of Transworld Data, a technology and market research firm. 

Editor's Note: This article was originally published in Leading Fleets magazine. Click here for the digital edition.