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Hours of Service

Proposed changes in the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s Hours-of-Service rules for truck drivers will give them more flexibility, but will the changes affect highway safety? Trucking industry representatives have largely praised the proposed changes, because they stand to save a lot of money in operating costs. But others worry that the changes can put motorists at risk.

Simply stated, the new rules will put more truck drivers on the road with less rest. This poses a real threat for motorists who share the road with big rigs on our nation’s highways.

The FMSCA rule changes are tentatively set to go into effect Sept. 28.

Those proposed rules changes include:

30-Minute Break Rule

Currently, a driver must take a 30-minute, off-duty break after eight hours of continuous driving. Under the proposed rule revision, the driver can instead list his status as on duty/not driving. He can still work during this time, just not drive.

Sleeper-Berth Exception

Under existing rules, the driver must log 10 consecutive hours off duty, eight hours of which must be spent in the sleeper-berth. The proposed rules change would allow the driver to split this time into one session of at least seven consecutive hours in the sleeper-berth and one session of at least two consecutive hours off duty. These hours can be spent in the sleeper-berth, if desired.

Pause in the 14-hour Driving Window

The new rules would allow a driver to take an off-duty break of 30 minutes to three hours that does not count against the 14-Hour driving window. The driver would still have to abide by the 10-hour rule at the end of his shift.

Adverse Driving Conditions

When bad weather or unforeseen road conditions arise, drivers will be granted two additional hours to the maximum window during which driving is permitted.

The 14-hour on-duty window does not mean 14 consecutive hours of driving. The driver may drive his rig for only 11 of those 14 hours. In adverse driving conditions, he can drive for 13 hours under the proposed rule change.

Short-Haul Exception

For specified commercial drivers currently limited to a 12-hour on-duty window, proposed changes would increase the on-duty allowance to 14 hours. Additionally, the maximum range of operation would increase from 120 air miles to 150 air miles.

Driver Fatigue—The Facts

Approximately 18,000 trucks crash each due to truck driver fatigue—the sixth-most prevalent cause of truck accidents, according to the FMSCA’s Report to Congress. What’s interesting is that No. 5 on the list is inadequate surveillance. You have to wonder if fatigue played a role in some of those crashes as well.

Right behind driver fatigue as a cause of truck accidents is work-related pressure. Truck drivers are constantly under the gun to meet delivery deadlines, and, frankly, some of those deadlines are unreasonable.

A Trilogy of Terror

Combine the three factors of inadequate surveillance, driver fatigue and work-related pressure—all potentially connected—and they account for 35% of all truck accidents in the U.S. Out of 500,000 truck accidents per year, that amounts to a staggering 175,000 truck accidents annually that are directly or indirectly connected to driver fatigue.

In 2018, 4,136 people died in truck accidents, and it should come as no surprise that 73% of the deaths occurred in the other vehicle. But even truck driver deaths and truck passenger deaths are increasing.

Nearly 50,000 truck crashes per year result in serious injuries. And, again, it’s the passengers in cars who take the brunt of the beating. A big rig hits hard

Trucking Moguls Like the Rule Changes

The American Trucking Association and the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association are onboard with the rule changes, as is Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao, who stated that the revisions give America’s commercial drivers “more flexibility while maintaining safety limits on driving time.”

It is predicted that the changes will save U.S. consumers $274 million annually because of faster delivery times and cost savings imparted to the trucking firms.

Trucking firms generally applaud the concept and have high praise for Chao and the FMCSA, but the glad-handing is not universal. The National Transportation Research Board says that the proposed rules pave the way for “hazardous fatigued-driving conditions.”

Faster Delivery at the Expense of Safety?

Trucking companies’ primary focus is to expedite the entire process of shipping, with the thought that the rule changes are going to make things go much quicker. However, they could have the consequence of decreasing safety.

The proposed rules have not been interpreted by a court and they haven’t been properly evaluated. So now, we’re going to “test” these new hours of service rules on the highways. The “hurry up” motivation for these revisions will decrease the margin for error and could lead to mistakes and put everyone on the road at risk of encountering an 80,000-pound wrecking ball.

On-Duty, Off-Duty, Rest and Driving

We are currently working on a case where the company had the driver working 17 hours a day. Unfortunately, this is a fairly common occurrence, and the new rules would give trucking companies additional opportunities to manipulate the logs.

The 14-hour drive window, which only allows 11 hours of actual driving, is being tampered with. Currently, a truck driver has to be on off-duty status for 10 consecutive hours. If his rig has a sleeper-berth, eight of those hours must be spent in the sleeper berth, with the other two listed as off-duty. Under the new rules, the driver can split his rest time, spending only seven hours in the sleeper berth and two hours as off duty.

Also of concern the new rule regarding on-duty breaks of up to three hours that do not count against the 14-hour window. An on-duty break means the driver is not driving, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he’s resting. He could be checking his tires, fixing a flat, rearranging his cargo and doing manual labor that doesn’t qualify as driving.

Adverse Driving Conditions

One of the most dangerous aspects of the rule changes is that truckers could add two hours to their driving window due to “adverse driving conditions.” There is a lot of uncertainty as to the definition of adverse driving conditions. The court hasn’t told us what qualifies as an adverse driving condition.

In order to get their driver over the limit, trucking companies can identify adverse driving conditions as the reason. And that could be a limitless number of driving conditions.

Early Call to an Attorney More Important Than Ever

Typically, trucking firms are not required to keep driver’s logs on file for more than 30 days unless there is an “anticipation of litigation.” Even the occurrence of an accident doesn’t necessarily trigger a qualifying condition.

The key is to retain counsel early enough to put the trucking company on notice. So even if you’re uncertain of your injury, the first thing you need to do is let them know you will be making a claim of some type. Once they receive that notice, they have a duty to retain those logs and documents associated with the crash.

Time will tell exactly how these rule changes will affect public safety. I fear that public safety will be compromised, and some unfortunate motorists will pay the price.


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