Driven Over the Edge

In announcing the new Hours of Service (HOS) rules last week, Annette Sandberg, Administrator of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA), noted that although the new regulations will go into effect on October 1st, there will be time until December 31st to work with enforcement agencies to assure that provisions in the 400-plus HOS pages are understood and being met. Ms. Sandberg stressed that the new rules were aimed at providing for the well-being, general health and safety of the drivers. Driver safety and health were the issues in question in the earlier HOS rules, and she indicated that while the Administration was confident in its science with the original rules, it had now reassured itself that it was correct in the first place.

Not everyone will have the time or patience to digest these lengthy regulations but you can be sure that truckers and safety advocates will. Some of them already have. For 60 years truckers were permitted to drive for 10 consecutive hours until the FMCSA, on Jan.1, 2004, changed the rule to allow them another hour behind the wheel. The court threw out this change more than a year ago, however, saying it was “arbitrary and capricious” and it failed to consider a trucker’s health. This past Friday, August 19th, the truck-safety agency announced that a revision to the rule would still allow the big rigs to roll for 11 hours, three hours more than safety advocates say they should.

“What reasonable person who has traveled our nation’s roads and highways thinks that forcing tired truck drivers to stay behind the wheel even longer is a good public policy?” asked Teamsters Union President James P. Hoffa.

Ms. Sandberg said that the new rule is backed by more research and was designed to reduce the number of crashes caused by fatigued drivers. “The research shows that this new rule will improve driver health and safety and the safety of our roadways,” Ms. Sandberg said during a press conference. She added that the revised rule requires drivers to take at least 10 hours off between shifts, two more than before, and reduces the maximum work day from 15 hours to 14 hours.

But Joan Claybrook, president of the safety group Public Citizen, said that drivers can drive 20 percent longer and spend 30 percent more time on duty under the new rule, and pointed out that the agency’s own data shows that deaths resulting from large truck crashes are up 3.1 percent from 2003 to 2004. She said the risk of deadly crashes significantly rises after the 10th and 11th hours of driving.

In an opposing view, Mike Russell, spokesman for the American Trucking Associations, a group which supports the rule, disagreed with Ms. Claybrook and said that most deadly accidents do not happen after long hours of driving. Wal-Mart and other retailers have lobbied Congress to extend the workday for truckers to 16 hours, something labor unions and safety advocates say would make roadways more dangerous for all drivers, and would just add to the problems plaguing truck drivers.

In this disagreement, each party cites studies supporting its own view, but how can opposing studies both be right? [Figures don’t lie, they say, but … well, you know the rest.]