Will new HOS regulations lead to safer roads or an incapacitated trucking industry?

truck driver talking into truck radio

More than 100,000 Americans are injured every year in crashes involving commercial trucks. In an effort to make the roads safer for all drivers and passengers, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) recently proposed changes to the current hours of service laws for truck drivers. Hours of Service (HOS) laws limit the amount of hours a trucker can drive continuously. HOS laws currently state that truckers are only allowed to drive 11 out of 14 hours in a day and that the driving period must be followed by 10 hours of off-duty time. Proposed changes include reducing the driving time to 10 hours, restricting the 34-hour restart, limiting on-duty time to 13 hours (from 14) and placing mandatory breaks.

While the number of fatal accidents involving a tractor-trailer has been on the decline in recent years, there were still more than 3,300 deaths in 2009, according to FMCSA. Although research does not directly link those deaths to fatigued drivers, the National Transport Commission states that fatigue is one of the most common causes of crashes for heavy vehicle drivers. Says U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood, “A fatigued driver has no place behind the wheel of a large commercial truck.”

While fewer mandated hours might sound like a dream regulation to many working Americans, in the United States, many commercial truck drivers are only paid for moving a product from one location to another. This creates great financial incentive for truckers to transport a load in as little time as possible and to get back on the road with another load. Drivers are not paid for mandatory rest time. With a limited amount of time to drive, and the incentive to drive as much cargo as far as possible, some truckers may be motivated to take illegal or negligent measures to ensure the quickest arrival of a product. These measures include:

  • Driving longer than they are legally permitted
  • Taking drugs to stay awake when rest is needed
  • Unsafe speeding
  • Driving during unsafe weather conditions
  • Driving while eating or otherwise distracted

All of these factors contribute to the tremendous number of accidents involving tractor-trailers. Some argue that this system of performance-based pay is necessitated by the demands on the transportation industry to deliver packages, produce, livestock and other products in the short timeframes of the modern world. Drivers paid hourly wages might not have the needed sense of urgency to ensure the on-time arrival of goods.

Although some progressive fleets do not pay their drivers on a mileage-based system, it is still prevalent in the industry. Instead of trying to change the pay system, FMCSA is attempting to limit the number of hours drivers spend behind the wheel, while also giving them more rest periods. The ultimate goal is, of course, to reduce trucking accidents caused by driver fatigue. While no one is against better road safety, many groups from the trucking industry are in opposition of the measures proposed by FMCSA.

The American Trucking Associations (ATA) is the recognized leading representative of truckers and the trucking industry. ATA has criticized the proposed HOS changes in a statement from ATA president Gov. Bill Graves, “Since the current HOS rules were introduced in 2003, the trucking industry has achieved a continually improving safety record, reaching the lowest fatality and injury rate levels in recorded history. This…set of proposed rules is founded on what appears to be…inflated math.”

The Canadian Trucking Alliance (CTA) believes the proposed changes could affect the economy of the United States. “The systems, routes and schedules…in shipping US exports to Canada have been designed around the current Hours-of-Service rules. Reduction in the current rules will have detrimental effect to…the delivery of US exports, which will have negative impact on the US manufacturing sector,” stated CTA CEO David Bradley.

Proponents still tout that safety is the top priority and that potential financial losses to individual truckers, the transportation industry and arguably the economy are not enough reason to sacrifice the welfare of all people on the road. Trucking accident victims and their families would likely agree.

Whether the proposed changes to the HOS are pushed through, or whether a different solution is pursued, optimal safety for truck drivers and other vehicles on the road remains the objective.

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