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Status Report, Vol. 35, No. 9 | October 21, 2000 Subscribe

Truck safety in the balance as hours of service are considered

Too many truckers end up driving too long without enough rest. The federal government estimates that fatigue contributes to 15 percent of fatal and injury-producing crashes of large trucks each year. In April the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) unveiled a proposal intended to reduce this problem. Two main provisions are to mandate longer off-duty time for truckers and require electronic recorders to enforce the rules. The proposal also would increase the hours truckers can drive at a stretch. The Institute and other safety groups support the first two provisions but not the third one.

FMCSA faces far greater opposition from the trucking industry, which is lobbying hard against the proposal, saying it would push up shipping costs, economically devastate some carriers, and lead to more crashes. Already the industry has won ground. A Senate appropriations panel tried to ban the rulemaking altogether, leading to a compromise. Now FMCSA cannot issue a new hours-of-service rule for another year. Meantime, eight hearings and three roundtables have been convened to open dialogue, but the atmosphere is tense. The industry views the proposed rule changes as another front in the "regulatory war" against trucking, while FMCSA in its first independent year is under pressure to show it can regulate effectively.

Institute president Brian O'Neill characterizes the plan on the table as "a reasonable compromise. While we don't like the idea of truckers spending 12 hours behind the wheel, the longer periods of mandatory rest plus the requirement for on-board recorders make this a positive proposal on balance."

Under current rules, truckers may drive as many as 16 hours a day — up to 10 at a stretch — with only 8 hours off between shifts. Research indicates that crash risk increases considerably after 8 to 10 driving hours, so both the current rules and the new proposal allow too many hours behind the wheel. But under the rules now in effect, truckers routinely drive longer than is legal because it's so easy to falsify paper logbooks (see Status Report special issue: truck safety, Sept. 12, 1998).

Economic incentives to exceed maximum hours are strong for motor carriers as well as drivers, most of whom are paid by the mile or load, not the number of hours worked. Falsification is so common that surveys show most truckers admit logbooks are inaccurate.

Recorders are needed

The key aspect of FMCSA's proposal is that it should reduce the rampant falsification of driving hours. Electronic recorders would replace handwritten logbooks on all longhaul rigs. Institute senior researcher Elisa Braver applauds this, saying, "Any effort to improve hours-of-service rules would be meaningless without requiring tamper-resistant recorders." Four times since 1986 the Institute has petitioned the federal government to require on-board recorders.

Work hour changes needed

FMCSA proposes to limit truckers' daily work time to 12 hours. With no distinction between driving and nondriving duties, all 12 hours could be spent behind the wheel — 2 hours longer than allowed at a stretch under current rules. "Unlike most of the new proposal, the provision to allow truckers to go 12 hours makes little sense given what is known about driving hours and crash risk," O'Neill notes.

Truckers' daily off-duty time would be extended from 8 to 12 hours — a 10-hour period each day plus 2 hours that could be taken in half-hour breaks during the work day. Drivers also would be required to take a longer break once a week that includes 2 consecutive nights off. These provisions are well supported by research. The consensus is that the current 8-hour off-duty period doesn't allow enough time for sleep, especially among nighttime drivers who try to sleep during the day. The result is that many truckers accumulate sleep deficits that progressively hinder performance.

Long-standing industry opposition

Last year the American Trucking Associations submitted a proposal for 14 work hours, all of which could be spent driving, plus a 10-hour break. There was no provision for onboard recorders to help enforce the rules. Now that FMCSA has proposed contrary provisions, the industry group wants the agency to go "back to the drawing board."

A great deal of the criticism is directed at recorders. For example, Todd Spencer of the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association describes the mandate as "a heavy-handed, overzealous attack by government bureaucrats on the constitutional rights of professional truckers." Aware of the privacy arguments, FMCSA says recorders would supply "a more effective form of the self-monitoring and reporting drivers have been required to perform for many decades in the form of paper records."

Other opponents say recorders are too costly at $1,500 to $3,000. Yet some manufacturers are advertising electronic recording devices that would meet proposed requirements for $500 or less. Many carriers — as many as 26 percent, according to a 1997 survey in New York — already are using technology that could be adapted to the government's proposed requirements. Motor carrier executives and drivers who use recorders instead of paper logbooks say they save a lot of time and money. State trucking associations in Arkansas, California, and Tennessee are among the relatively few industry representatives that openly support the proposal to require recorders.

With nearly 20,000 comments submitted to FMCSA and a rulemaking that will go on for at least another year, the agency faces a lot of work. "Experience suggests the process won't be quick or easy," O'Neill concludes.

What's an on-board recorder?

It combines the functions of a speedometer, odometer, and employee time clock — all wrapped up in a dashboard instrument about the size of a tape deck. On-board recorders keep track of vehicle speed, mileage, duration of travel, and number and duration of stops as well as time and day. They typically track who's driving via smart cards or other driver inputs. Information about driving hours is accessible by motor carrier or enforcement personnel.

These are the basic requirements for on-board recorders in the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration's hoursof- service proposal.

Electronic recorders differ in technology, but not purpose, from older tachographs, which mechanically record data on circular paper graphs. Such devices are mandatory in large commercial vehicles in European Union countries as well as Brazil, Israel, Japan, South Korea, Turkey, and Venezuela. At least six other nations have partial legislation or are considering a mandate. The European Union will require electronic recorders in all new commercial trucks by 2002.

It's important to distinguish on-board recorders in trucks from so-called "black boxes," also known as event recorders. The latter are used specifically for crash analysis and accident reconstruction, while the recorders being proposed by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration would track primarily truck drivers' hours.

Some on-board recorders do keep event data, and some work with global positioning systems to help motor carriers pinpoint the locations of their truck rigs. Other recorders include engine monitoring systems to improve maintenance. Some are linked with wireless routing and navigation systems. These capabilities add convenience as well as cost, but no such functions would be required.

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