Flexible Hours of Service Needed

Early this year, the Federal Highway Administration granted hours-of-service flexibility to fuel oil distributors in five northeastern states during the busiest winter months. The Winter Home Heating Oil Delivery State Flexibility Program was implemented in January and ended in April.

The program applied to fuel oil delivery drivers working intrastate within 100 miles of a central terminal or distribution point. Drivers were allowed to restart calculations for the 60- and 70-hour rules after a minimum of 24 hours of off-duty time. Total on-duty time couldn't exceed 75 hours during seven consecutive days (rather than the normal 60 hours) or 80 hours during eight consecutive days (rather than the normal 70 hours).

FHWA officials said the agency was motivated to develop the rule flexibility because a substantial number of people rely on fuel oil for home heating during the winter months. The need to comply with the hours-of-service requirements may endanger the welfare of citizens who must wait longer for their home heating oil as a result, according to the FHWA.

By all accounts, the program worked well. We encourage the FHWA to make it an annual program. Further, we suggest that the fuel oil delivery program should be one of the models for the overall hours-of-service rule rewrite that is now underway.

Both the American Trucking Associations (ATA) and the National Private Truck Council (NPTC) are calling on the FHWA to provide greater flexibility in driver hours of service. The associations stress that trucking operations are so diverse today that it's impossible to craft a single rule that fits everyone.

In comments filed with the FHWA in June, the ATA urged the agency to build new rules around the biological 24-hour clock. ATA pointed out that the current rule (which allows 10 hours of driving followed by an eight-hour break) falls out of alignment with the human rest cycle. In essence, the current rule can contribute to driver fatigue.

ATA suggested that the FHWA could provide options that would allow carriers to develop fatigue management plans in exchange for exemptions to fixed, mandated time limits. Such plans would contain strategies for combating driver fatigue.

The trucking association also is pushing the sort of 24-hour restart that was authorized for the heating oil delivery program. ATA said the restart provision would make trucking companies more efficient by enabling them to adjust driver schedules to business demands.

Like the ATA, the NPTC said that the FHWA should develop driving-hour rules that reflect natural cycles of work and rest. "The important thing for the FHWA will be to develop proposals that are simple, effective, and readily enforceable in an industry of increasing complexity," said Jim York, NPTC safety director. "The current regulations, written more than 60 years ago, do not meet the needs of an industry that increasingly must meet customer demands on a 24-hour basis."

NPTC has recommended modifying on-duty driving time limits from 10 hours to 12 hours while increasing off-duty time from eight hours to nine hours and maintaining existing 15-hour, split sleeper, and seven/eight day cumulative rules. NPTC officials said the membership believes this structure better fits the 24-hour circadian rhythm body clock and provides more rest opportunities than the current 10 hours on and eight hours off.

These are just some of the hours-of-service changes that have been proposed. Other groups and individuals also have made suggestions, and FHWA officials have their own views. We hope that all of the different ideas will be studied carefully and given a fair hearing.

We need new hours of service regulations that will help carry the trucking industry safely and efficiently into the 21st Century.

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