Truckers say proposed rules would be costly
Larry Thomas -- Furniture Today, March 19, 2012
HIGH POINT - Three days before Christmas, the U.S. Department of Transportation unveiled revisions to the so-called hours-of-service (HOS) rules for commercial truck drivers, congratulating itself for developing regulations that it said will result in safer streets and highways.
"This final rule will help prevent fatigue-related truck crashes and save lives," Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood proclaimed in a press release. "Truck drivers deserve a work environment that allows them to perform their jobs safely."
Truckers, including those who transport furniture, undoubtedly would agree with LaHood's second statement, but just about everything else in the announcement all but ruined their Yuletide cheer.
"Scrooge himself would gladly take second chair to the lack of Christmas spirit displayed by federal regulators that issued unnecessarily restrictive rules on our nation's truckers," fumed Michael Campbell, executive vice president and CEO of the California Trucking Assn. "The only gift these rules present is the one laid at the doorstep of the anti-trucking groups."
Furniture carriers, while forgiving Campbell for his hyperbole, are in general agreement with the rest of the trucking industry. They say new rules, which carriers must implement no later than July 1, 2013, are indeed an unnecessary burden.
Big rig trucking accidents on decline
The new HOS rules would continue to allow truckers to drive for 11 hours per day, but would reduce their work week from the current 82 hours to a maximum of 70 hours.
Plus, they must take a 30-minute break after working eight hours.
Truckers who maximize their weekly work hours would be allowed to "restart" their work week after taking 34 consecutive hours off, but that period must include two nights between 1 a.m. and 5 a.m.
What upsets truckers the most is that the new rules will replace regulations they say were not broken and didn't need fixing.
"Since the current rules went into effect in 2004, fatalities (involving large trucks) have gone down every year, except one," said Frank Miller, director of logistics at Mulberry, Fla.-based Badcock Home Furniture & more. "The new rules don't address the real safety issues out there."
Miller, who traveled to Washington in November to testify at a House Oversight and Government Affairs Committee hearing on the matter, said regulators should look at issues such as sleep apnea testing and the installation of electronic logbooks before tinkering with work hours.
Badcock has a fleet of about 50 tractor-trailers, and Miller said the new rules could add $2.6 million to $2.8 million annually to the retailer's costs.
A big chunk of that additional money would be spent on hiring more drivers, but that presents yet another problem - a shortage of drivers. Miller told the committee he receives about 500 applications for every qualified driver he hires.
"There is a driver shortage and it's going to get worse," added Scott Roberts, safety director at Cory Home Delivery. "When you want to hire a good driver, it's going to cost you."
However, the most contentious point for furniture carriers and many others in the trucking business appears to be the changes to the 34-hour restart provisions. They say requiring the 34 hours to include the two 1 a.m. to 5 a.m. periods would put more big rigs on the road during peak morning travel times.
"This is a case where something that might sound good on paper doesn't work in the real world," said David French, senior vice president for government relations at the National Retail Federation, the group that brought Miller to Washington to testify at the hearing. "These new regulations will still drive up costs for businesses and consumers while making our highways and city streets more dangerous rather than safer."
Roberts agreed, noting that requiring two consecutive off-duty periods between 1 a.m. and 5 a.m. is "not practical for most fleets."
"It's going to put a tremendous number of commercial vehicles on the road after 5 a.m.," Roberts said. "That will make us less efficient because we'll get stuck in more traffic and use more fuel."
Roberts said efficiency is especially critical for Cory, which does home deliveries for numerous furniture, electronics and appliance retailers.
"Those extra costs get passed on to the retailers and manufacturers who are our clients, and it's eventually going to get passed on to the consumer," he said.
Carl Abernathy, president of furniture carrier Northwest Furniture Xpress, said the restart provisions won't have too much impact in his company, since most of its shipments are long-distance runs from North Carolina and Virginia to the Pacific Northwest that use two drivers.
However, he said some of the provisions may be difficult to enforce, especially when a driver is returning home from a long trip.
"If you're 100 miles from home, you're going to see people fudge on that," said Abernathy. "They're not going to want to wait 34 hours before finishing their trip."
He said he was disappointed the proposed HOS rules didn't address sleep apnea, which he said can lead to fatigue and is a "big issue" that isn't going to go away because the average age of truck drivers is increasing.
"A lot of clinics that do driver physicals don't want to go to the trouble of performing a sleep apnea test," he said. "But I think (physical examinations) are going to get a lot more scrutiny than ever before."
It's also apparent the proposed rules themselves face a lot of scrutiny. Since the DOT published the proposal in December, at least two lawsuits have been filed seeking to block their implementation - one by the American Trucking Assn., the industry's largest trade group, and another by a nonprofit highway safety group that contends the new rules don't go far enough.
The ATA suit, filed with the federal appeals court for the District of Columbia, is particularly critical of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, the DOT agency that regulates the trucking industry.
"FMCSA's own analyses show that even when they overstate the safety benefits of these changes, the costs created by their rule still outweigh those benefits," said Bill Graves, ATA president and CEO. "We need this issue to be resolved in a credible manner, taking into account the undisputed crash reduction since 2004, so we can focus limited government and industry resources on safety initiatives that will have a far greater impact on highway safety."
Graves said, for example, that ATA supports a requirement that large trucks be electronically speed-limited, as well as a national speed limit of 65 mph for all vehicles.
Data provided by FMCSA shows that fatal crashes involving large trucks fell from 4,551 in 2005 - the year after the current HOS rules took effect - to 2,987 in 2009.
Another key metric, fatal crashes per 100 million vehicle miles traveled, showed a similar decline, from 2.05 in 2005 to 1.04 in 2009. It exceeded 5 crashes per 100 million miles traveled on several occasions in the 1970s.
The number of large truck crashes with injuries also has declined steadily, from 78,000 in 2005 to 51,000 in 2009. The number of injury crashes per 100 million vehicle miles traveled fell from 34.8 in 2005 to 17.8 in 2009.
"These improvements are a testament to the commitment to safety made by the trucking industry, the federal government, and trucking's law enforcement partners," Graves said at the time the statistics were released.