New trucking rule gives short-haul drivers extra 16-hour day

The new hours-of-service trucking regulations grant two work days of up to 16 hours within a week to short-haul drivers operating within 150 air miles of their base and returning home each night, provided the equipment is smaller than that requiring a commercial driver’s license. The rules the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration announced Aug. 19 also allow such operations — many of which are construction related — to use payroll time sheets rather than log books for compliance purposes.

“We hope this new rule ends the uncertainty that the enforcement community and the industry have experienced regarding hours of service,” said FMCSA Administrator Annette Sandberg. “We are confident that these regulations are an important step toward highway safety and will prevent motor carrier crashes.”

The short-haul provision and a stipulation requiring drivers who use sleeper berths to satisfy their mandatory rest requirements by taking at least eight consecutive hours off duty and another two hours off duty throughout the work day were the only significant changes under the new regulations, which take effect Oct. 1. FMCSA announced a transition period through Dec. 31.

“The research shows that this new rule will improve driver health and safety and the safety of our roadways,” Sandberg said. “Ensuring drivers obtain necessary rest and restorative sleep will save lives.”

The short-haul rule that took effect in January 2004 allowed one workday of up to 16 hours, but no distinction was made based on the type of equipment. Short-haul drivers operating smaller equipment represent about half of all commercial truck registrations but only 10 percent of truck crashes and only 7 percent of fatal truck crashes, Sandberg said.

This latest revision of the hours rule results from a lawsuit by Citizens for Safe and Reliable Highways, Parents Against Tired Truckers and Public Citizen. A federal appeals court judge ruled in July 2004 that FCMSA had to rewrite the rule because it had failed to consider driver health in devising it.

In its revision, the agency indeed focused on driver health, Sandberg said. The rule changes were based upon research by the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute, which collected data from 87 drivers using in-cab monitoring equipment, as well as 1,000 health research articles, Sandberg said. The agency also gave consideration to approximately 1,800 public comments.

The other controversial provisions of the current rule, such as 11 hours of driving time and the 34-hour restart of cumulative rest, remain justified by the need to protect both public safety and the vitality of the U.S. economy, Sandberg said.

Electronic onboard recorders – another issue raised by the appeals court – were not addressed in the new hours-of-service rule. Technical specifications and costs need further study, Sandberg said.

“The importance and complexity of electronic onboard recorder issues warrants a specific and separate rulemaking,” Sandberg said.

Sandberg said she expects to announce a rulemaking on onboard recorders in early 2006.

The president of Public Citizen called the new rule a disappointment, “virtually unchanged” from the previous rule. “Like the 2003 rule, today’s proposed rule makes permanent a dramatic increase in the allowable weekly driving time and on-duty hours for truckers,” said Joan Claybrook, who led the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration under President Carter.

“The overall increased driving and working time is not supported by the vast body of scientific literature that exists about fatigue and driver safety,” Claybrook said. “Nor does this proposal help drivers get on a 24-hour circadian schedule.”

The new hours regulations “are as we expected, because the agency indicated they wanted to keep the rules they had in place,” said Todd Spencer, spokesman for the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association.

The Truckload Carriers Association is pleased that most regulations, including drive time for single drivers, remained intact, said Dave Berry, TCA chairman. Beyond that, “It’s just a little early to jump to any conclusions” about the impact of the new rule, Berry said.

Whether the latest rule will prove to be “bullet-proof” from litigation remains to be seen, Sandberg said. “There’s always a good chance that someone might challenge it,” she said.

In her initial response, Claybrook of Public Citizen did not mention further litigation, saying only, “We sincerely hope that in the coming weeks the agency will reconsider this issue and redraft the rule.”

Henry Albert, an independent owner-operator who pulls a flatbed on the East Coast, was more blunt. “It’s going to go right back to court now,” he said when he heard the news. “They didn’t change enough.”

Immediate reactions to the new rule from other truckers was mixed.

“I want the government to stay out of my truck,” said Lester Nicholson of Centreville, Ala., who drives for Crete. “I’m 59, and I have never slept eight straight hours in my life.”

In agreement was Jacinto Costilla of San Jose, Texas, who drives for STS Transport. “How are you going to get eight straight hours of sleep? You can’t force your body to sleep.”

Mark More of Cartersville, Ga., who drives for Georgia Southern Transport, said he preferred the old hours regulations. “Everybody was used to them,” he said. “Not everyone can drive like the experts think they can.”

George Kelly of Milwaukee, who drives for American Eagle, sees good and bad in the new rule. “It cuts back on the drive time,” he said, “but it is good safety-wise.”

On the other hand, Joey Williams of Augusta, Ga., who drives for Club Car, said, “I think it’s fine. If I run 14 hours, I take 10 hours off anyway.”

For a full copy of the final rule, visit the FMCSA website.