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Hours-of-service debate rages on

Transportation experts are predicting that if the new hours of service regulations of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration go into effect in July as scheduled, productivity will decrease and the net effect will be the loss of truck capacity and a significant increase in freight rates.

In fact, an FMCSA field study analyzing the effect of new regulations — specifically surrounding the 34-hour restart provision — is due at the end of March and may well alter those new regulations. At least that is the hope of the American Trucking Association and other motor carrier representatives that have challenged the rules in court and are waiting for the productivity report.

The FMSCA issued its new rules in December 2011 after holding six listening sessions around the country. They became finalized in early 2012 with full compliance mandated by July 2013. The rules were specifically designed to improve the safety record of long-haul drivers as the result of a spate of accidents tied to driver fatigue.

Of particular concern to the trucking industry during the promulgation of these rules was the maintaining of the regulation allowing 11 hours of drive time in any day.

Many highway-safety activists were advocating for a 10-hour maximum drive day. FMCSA maintained the 11-hour day but reduced maximum driving hours per week to 70 hours from 82, and mandated a 30-minute break after every eight hours of driving. In addition, new regulations involving the 34-hour mandated layoff at the start and end of each driver's work week were established.

Under the existing rules, it is possible for a driver to include a 34-hour restart every six days. Under the new rules, only one restart is allowed per week.

In addition, under the new rules, the restart period must include two consecutive free periods between 1 a.m. and 5 a.m.

The ATA and others have argued that these two provisions combined are going to greatly reduce the productivity of drivers. They claim that a single driver that currently can make 26 cross-country round trips per year will be limited to no more than 24 under these new rules. That will mean either a 7 percent drop in capacity or the need to hire additional drivers to maximize the use of the tractor-trailers. Either scenario will result in higher costs.

The new restart provisions could particularly affect the fresh produce industry, where middle-of-the-night East Coast unloading is commonplace. If a driver ends his trip unloading produce at an East Coast terminal in the middle of the night, which is very typical, and then begins his restart period, he'll be off the road for more than 48 hours because he has to include two consecutive middle-of-the-night free periods.

For example, a truck that makes a 2 a.m. delivery to Hunts Point in the Bronx, NY, on a Monday morning, marking the end of a cross-country long haul, will then have to park his truck the rest of Monday and all of Tuesday before scheduling a pickup after 5 .a.m. Wednesday morning.

Under the old rules, if it was 4 a.m. by the time he unloaded and got back to the terminal, he could begin driving again 34 hours later, or 2 p.m. on Tuesday. Over time, these delays will result in fewer cross-country trips.

Of course, that is the reason new rules were proposed.

In defending its new rules in the ATA court case, the FMCSA claims that off-duty breaks, including the amended 34-hour restart rule, provides the greatest safety benefit and will result in fewer crashes and fewer highway deaths.

When he originally announced the new rules, U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood said, "Trucking is a difficult job, and a big rig can be deadly when a driver is tired and overworked. This final rule will help prevent fatigue-related truck crashes and save lives. Truck drivers deserve a work environment that allows them to perform their jobs safely."

Truck-safety advocates argue that truck crashes injured more than 100,000 people in 2010, and fatalities involving trucks rose by almost 9 percent.

In court, the ATA has disputed these findings. It claims that since FMCSA first changed the hours-of-service rules in 2004, more miles are being driven collectively by long-haul operators with fewer crashes and fewer fatalities.

Bill Graves, president and chief executive officer of the ATA, said, "Since the agency first changed the hours rules in 2004, the truck-involved fatality rate has dropped by 36 percent — nearly twice as fast as the overall fatality rate on our highways — and that's not a coincidence: the current rules are working."