A safer road to travel?

June 1, 2004 By    

The first major change in 65 years to the rules that govern the time that truck drivers spend on duty has survived its first winter crunch test.

Nine years after Congress directed the U.S. Department of Transportation to overhaul its hours-of-service rules for commercial truck drivers, DOT in January rolled out new regulations that promised to reduce driver fatigue that is blamed for thousands of crashes each year.

The new rules reduce the total time a driver can be on duty from 15 hours to 14, but increase the number of allowable driving time hours from 10 to 11. They also require drivers to rest for 10 hours before resuming work, an increase of two hours from the old rules. The National Propane Gas Association has fought the changes. Besides cutting a driver’s availability by 10 percent, they eliminate a retailer’s flexibility to split drivers’ shifts during the demanding winter months. Once a driver completes a 14-hour shift, he no longer can answer late-night out-of-gas, leak check or emergency service calls requiring immediate response. Previously, employers could apply unused hours from a day shift to cover a night run.

NPGA argues that this inflexibility could force companies to hire an additional driver to cover those rare types of service calls. If a retailer doesn’t have another driver for that duty, the employer will be forced to choose between strict compliance with the regulations or serving a customer’s emergency needs.

More than 6,000 letters have been sent to federal legislators in an industrywide campaign to regain the flexibility of the old rules.

So how did the new rules hold up through their first winter blast? Despite heated public debate over the safety benefits earned versus the added operational costs, officials from both the trucking and propane industries say the first quarter rollout was surprisingly quiet.

“It was a fairly straight-forward winter from an enforcement standpoint,” reports Philip Squair, vice president of regulatory and technical services for NPGA. “We heard a lot of concerns about difficulties with complying, but not about enforcement.”

One reason for the calm was the 60-day moratorium on fines issued by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. During this “soft enforcement” period, logbook checks and violation citations wavered from state to state. Full enforcement is now back on the table.

Are our roads safer than before?

The changes should help the nation’s long-haul operators, who often rack up days of monotonous road miles for a single delivery. The benefit to bobtail drivers is less precise, however. Their route deliveries demand a physical exertion that breaks the monotony and creates a different kind of fatigue than those who sit sunrise to sunset behind the wheel.

You also could argue that reducing a work shift by one hour each day could pressure drivers to rush through their delivery schedule. Driving faster and taking shortcuts in their routine can only jeopardize safety standards.

This winter was our spring training. The real impact will be clearer when the regular season starts in five months.

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