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New U.S. Hours Proposal Falls Flat

by Jim Park

The folks down south are really in a lather now. The U.S. Department of Transportation's proposal to reform the hours-of-service regulations has met with near-universal condemnation. The safety advocates say it doesn't go far enough, the American Trucking Associations (ATA) says it goes way too far. In short, nobody likes the proposal.

So far, Canadian officials have been reluctant to criticize it. Canadian comments have only suggested that whatever road the Americans decide to venture down, Canadian drivers operating in that country will need to be familiar with the regs and remain in compliance at all times.

"That is no different from the present situation," says Canadian Trucking Alliance CEO David Bradley. "But we need to get a better understanding of how mixed Canada/U.S. operations will be affected. In addition, the rules in Canada will need to reflect the realities of the Canadian transportation network. And, while they should be compatible with those in the US, they are not likely to be identical."

The public comment period has already begun, and will extend until July 31. All the major American truck lobby groups are urging their members to voice their disapproval loudly and clearly during the comment period. Even the Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance has expressed some concern over their ability to interpret and enforce the complex regulations. Even the CVSA has even formally requested a 90-day extension to the comment period in order to give them sufficient time to analyze the 270-page document and prepare a response.

Walter B. McCormick, Jr., ATA president, says the proposal would have a devastating effect on the American economy as a whole, and the industry in particular. "This proposal could mean a 50% increase in the number of trucks on our already crowded highways," he says. "That translates into as many as 180,000 additional drivers and trucks on the road just to keep the current economy moving."

At the heart of the problem is the requirement that long-haul and regional drivers take at least 12 hours off every day. The industry was hoping for, and half expecting, a proposal similar to the Canadian one which would have seen drivers working for 14 hours and bunking down for the remaining 10 in a 24-hour period.

The new proposal seeks to break drivers into five distinct groups for the purposes of establishing slightly different regulatory structures, depending on how the driver works. Drivers who work split-shifts, such as transit bus operators, drivers whose principal function is something other than a truck driver, such as a utility company employee, and drivers who do local route deliveries such as small package delivery service, will all have environment-specific rules to follow.

But the section of the proposal that's causing the greatest concern to the industry involves long-haul and regional-haul drivers. If these folks are away from the home terminal for more than a minimum of one or two off-duty periods, they must have at least 10 consecutive hours off duty in each 24-hour period as well as at least two hours off-duty during each shift. That's a total of 12 non-driving hours each day.

The off-duty intervals and the weekly cumulative limits are rather confusing and will force drivers into longer idle periods than they currently experience. One option calls for drivers to have a minimum 58 hours of consecutive off-duty time every week, including a minimum of two midnight to six-a.m. periods. Or, drivers could opt for a two-week schedule whereby they would have one short and one long "weekend."

For the short weekend, drivers would need 32 hours of consecutive off-duty time, including two consecutive midnight to six-a.m. periods. After the short weekend, the driver could drive up to an additional 48 hours over the next four days, but then would require 82 consecutive hours off-duty, including two consecutive midnight to six-am periods, before returning to work.

But what has the industry really upset is the proposal for mandatory on-board recording devices to track a driver's compliance with the rules. A cost analysis report that accompanies the proposal says the on-board computers would cost the industry an estimated $492 million over the first decade. But McCormick's biggest concern has got to be, although he hasn't said so in as many words, that the on-board recorders would force the industry to deal with the invisible hours currently lost to loading, unloading and waiting.

Current estimates suggest that drivers lose more than 30 hours every week to this so-called unproductive time. If that time begins to show up on the on-board recorders, it will have a devastating effect on the industry's productivity.

So far, the feelings of the safety advocacy groups are just as strong, if for the opposite reasons. Jerry Donaldson, senior director of research at the Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, says the proposal demonstrates how completely the DOT fails to understand how the trucking industry operates.

The proposal treats regional drivers and long-haul drivers the same, he says, yet regional drivers more often drive at night in order to make morning deliveries.

"I have found a number of basic drawbacks to this rule which I am personally astounded have ever passed muster and made it into the Federal Register," Donaldson says. "The proposal does almost nothing to promote or increase safety of professional drivers or the drivers who share the roads with them. It has dismayed all sectors of the trucking industry; so as far as I can see the safety community is strongly opposed to this rule as well."

Parents Against Tired Truckers (PATT), among many other critics, has pointed out that the proposal doesn't really address the issue of truck drivers having to do non-paid activities, such as loading and unloading. "The loophole in the Fair Labor Standards Act still stands, so it's no wonder that drivers push harder to make up for lost time," PATT chairperson, Daphne Izer says.

For his part, Donaldson says the proposal not only makes no distinction between driving and on-duty not driving, it has no provision for drivers showing how they spent time out of the cab when they're not driving. "Just-in-time deliveries will have to be made by maximizing available driving time, so drivers will continue to drive up to the last available minute. And when they are required to perform other tasks, such as loading and unloading, they will do it during their off-duty time and they will lie about it," he says.

When asked to estimate the odds of the rules actually going into effect, Donaldson was very pessimistic. The chances are "Slim and None, and Slim packed his suitcase last night and left town," he says.

The proposal, as it stands, does nothing to address the shortage of truck parking spaces, which plagues some parts of the U.S., nor does it address the issue of rest area time limits. New York State has recently decided to abolish time limits for the use of rest area spaces. The National Transportation Safety Board is about to release a stinging report citing the DoT for not taking action on the issue, and for allowing parking concerns to become such a serious problem.

Truckers and other interested parties have until July 31 to submit comments to the Department of Transportation on its hours-of-service proposal.

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