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Status Report, Vol. 40, No. 6 | July 16, 2005 Subscribe

Truck driver fatigue isn't falling under rule in effect since 2004

The federal rule addressing truck drivers' work hours, in effect for a year and a half, isn't keeping truckers from driving too many hours with too little rest. This is the main finding of a new Institute survey of drivers at roadside weigh stations.

The researchers interviewed long-distance truck drivers in Oregon and Pennsylvania, questioning them about their work schedules during November-December 2003, before the current federal rule took effect, and during the same months of 2004, after the truckers had been working under the rule for almost a year. The 2004 survey found truckers in both states reporting more driving hours per day and per week.

"They already were driving long hours, even before the current federal rule went into effect in January 2004. Driving more hours exacerbates the risk," says Institute research vice president Anne McCartt. Now truckers are permitted to drive 11 hours per day, up from 10 under the old rule. Over a 7 or 8 day stretch, they may spend 25 to 30 percent more time behind the wheel.

To optimize work hours, truckers are taking advantage of a provision under which they may start over on a work "week" after 34 hours off duty — long before an actual week has elapsed (see "New work-hour rules for truckers won't improve safety," June 16, 2003). Eighty percent of the surveyed truckers said they're using this provision to squeeze up to 25 percent more driving into a calendar week.

"The restart provision is one of the worst aspects of the current rule. It's devastating from a safety perspective because it literally redefines a calendar week to let truckers extend their hours," McCartt says.

The rule increases required off-duty hours from 8 to 10 per day, and drivers said they're benefiting with more off-duty and sleep time. But dozing at the wheel hasn't declined. The proportion of truckers who reported dozing during the past month increased slightly, from 13 percent before the current rule to 15 percent after it took effect. Reported drowsy driving remained high. Under the current rule, 42 percent of truckers said they'd driven while sleepy during the past week. This compares with 40 percent the year before.

Violations haven't diminished. One-third of the truckers surveyed before and after the rule changes admitted to sometimes or often fudging the logs they keep of work hours. One in four drivers said they take less than the required time off duty.

These findings come amid controversy about the work rule and the need to improve enforcement. In July 2004 a federal appeals court overturned the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration's rule because it failed to take drivers' health and safety into account (see "Try again on rules on truck driving hours, appeals court tells FMSCA," Aug. 1, 2004). The court criticized the restart provision and questioned the rationality of the government's decision to back off from its initial proposal to require electronic recorders in trucks to track driving hours and monitor compliance with federal limits.

But then Congress intervened, allowing the January 2004 rule to remain in effect until federal regulators address the court's concerns or until Sept. 30, 2005, whichever comes first. The regulators have responded by again opening the rulemaking process and by proposing to reconsider onboard recorders.

"These might sound like promising steps, but in fact they're steps back," McCartt explains. "The requirement for recorders is long overdue, and going back to the beginning of a federal rulemaking process can mean more years of delay."

The Institute began calling for such a requirement in 1986 and has petitioned for it repeatedly since then (see "History of hours-of-service rules," July 26, 1997).

Even as regulators drag their feet concerning recorders, they've asked Congress to preserve the controversial work rule by writing it into law. Meanwhile the European Union has plans to mandate electronic recorders in the near future (see "ATA softens longtime anti-recorder stance, but now FMCSA lags behind," Jan. 31, 2005). The main trade association of Canadian motor carriers also favors requiring electronic recorders.

"It's high time to require recorders in trucks on U.S. roads, too," McCartt says.

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