Truckers could continue to log long hours behind the wheel without adequate rest under a proposed revision to federal hours of service rules. A silver lining would be more downtime for drivers on a 7-day work schedule but not as much of a break for those on 8-day workweeks. Both groups still would be allowed to drive for longer stretches than they could prior to a 2003 rule change.
The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA), the agency charged with truck safety, issued the proposal late last year as part of a 2009 settlement with Public Citizen and other groups (see "Agency rejects recorder rule for all big rigs," June 19, 2010; on the web at iihs.org). A final rule is due by July 26.
The rule would replace hours of service regulations FMCSA issued in 2003, which expanded truckers' allowable driving time and increased required off-duty time (see "New work-hour rules for truckers aren't going to improve safety," June 16, 2003). Public Citizen sued the agency after it denied petitions to reconsider the 2003 rule. A federal appeals court twice told FMCSA to go back and rethink work rules.
Trucker driver deaths per 100 billion truck miles traveled, 1991-2008
In the latest proposal, FMCSA leaves open the possibility of shortening truckers' driving time from 11 to 10 hours a day following a period of at least 10 consecutive hours off duty. Before 2004 truckers were limited to 10 hours driving time a day. The agency says it favors a 10-hour limit, reversing its earlier stance that driving 11 consecutive hours poses no more risk than 10.
"Restoring the 10-hour daily driving limit is long overdue," says Anne McCartt, Institute senior vice president for research. "It will reduce fatigued driving and lower crash risk. Well-controlled studies indicate crash risk rises well before the 11th hour of driving."
The American Trucking Associations prefers the current regulations. In a Jan. 19, 2011, letter to Congress, the group contends the industry is safer now than ever because truck-related crash deaths and injuries have declined even as truck mileage has risen.
"It's true that deaths in large truck crashes have dropped," McCartt concurs. "But the decline hasn't been as sharp as the drop in deaths in passenger vehicle crashes involving other vehicles besides trucks since 1990."
If the 2003 rule has had a safety benefit, the truck driver death rate per mile traveled should have fallen. When researchers examined driver crash deaths per 100 billion truck miles traveled in 1990-2008, they found the death rate rose in 2003 and also in 2004-06.
"Giving truckers the green light to drive longer didn't make roads safer," McCartt says. "The trends in truck driver deaths per truck miles traveled don't support the claim that the current rule reduced crashes."
Truckers typically follow a 7- or 8-day schedule and can start a new workweek after taking 34 hours off duty. This restart increases allowable driving hours in any 7- or 8-day period by about 28 percent. FMCSA suggests retaining the restart provision. What's new is that a restart would have to include 2 periods from midnight to 6 a.m., and only 1 restart would be allowed per 7-day period.
Researchers at the Institute developed hypothetical truck driver schedules maximizing allowable driving times. Requiring the restart to include 2 overnights had little effect on maximum average driving time in a 7-day period for either a 7- or 8-day workweek. For truck drivers operating on 7-day workweeks, the average weekly driving time would be 64 hours, whether using a daily driving limit of 10 or 11 hours. This is more than the 60 hours of driving in a 7-day period allowed by the pre-2003 rule but substantially less than the current maximum average weekly driving time of 72 hours.
The scenario is different for 8-day drivers. For this group, the maximum average driving hours per 7-day period would be 70 hours under both 10- and 11-hour limits, compared with 61 hours under the pre-2003 rule and 74 hours currently.
"Truck drivers with 8-day workweeks should be allowed only 1 restart in an 8-day period," McCartt says. "This is especially important since most long-distance drivers report following an 8-day schedule." She adds, "It's not clear that requiring the restart to include 2 overnight periods will achieve measurable safety benefits. The data don't support this change."