Regulators want to loosen hours-of-service rules for truckers

September 9, 2019

Federal regulators are poised to relax rules governing the hours truck drivers can spend behind the wheel, raising concerns about safety.

Under current hours-of-service rules, truckers are limited to driving for 11 hours (or 13 hours if they encounter “adverse driving conditions”) within a 14-hour window, and they must be off duty for 10 hours before the clock restarts.

In August, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) published proposed changes that would extend the daily work period under certain circumstances. None of the proposed changes would increase the allowed driving time. The public has until Oct. 7 to comment on the proposal.

“Driver fatigue is a major risk factor in large truck crashes,” says IIHS Senior Statistician Eric Teoh. “Creating more exceptions to the hours-of-service limits, which already allow drivers to log long hours, isn’t likely to improve safety and may well cause harm.”

One of the biggest proposed changes is to expand the so-called short-haul exception, under which short-haul drivers don’t need to use electronic logging devices to record their hours. The exemption currently applies to drivers who stay within a 100-mile radius and work no more than 12 hours a day. The proposal would expand the radius to 150 miles and extend the permitted workday to 14 hours.

Drivers who are eligible for the exemption still need to limit their driving time to 11 hours. However, since they don’t need to record their hours, compliance is impossible to verify.

In a study of large trucks involved in crashes with injuries or deaths, researchers from IIHS and the University of North Carolina Highway Safety Research Center found that drivers using a short-haul exception had a crash risk nearly five times as high as those who weren't (see “Safety defects and long hours contribute to large truck crashes,” Dec. 8, 2016).

Another change that FMCSA is proposing would allow truckers to expand the standard 14-hour window in which driving must be completed by two hours if they encounter adverse conditions, such as bad weather or unexpected traffic. Currently, drivers may extend their driving time under adverse conditions, but the window remains 14 hours.

FMCSA says extending the driving window would encourage drivers to wait out the adverse conditions or drive slowly through them, rather than attempting to drive quickly through them. However, it creates a longer work period and could therefore increase fatigue.

Another proposed change that could lengthen a driver’s workday is an option to stop the clock on the 14-hour driving window for an off-duty break of 30 minutes to three hours.

“FMCSA says that a three-hour rest in the middle of a shift would offset any potential downside of a 17-hour day, but that’s far from certain,” Teoh says.

The proposed hours-of-service changes is the second recent initiative from FMCSA to raise safety concerns.

Earlier this year, the agency requested comments on a possible pilot program to allow 18- to 20-year-olds to drive trucks across state lines. The current minimum age is 21. Given the known risks of teen drivers for passenger vehicles, IIHS encouraged FMCSA to study the crash risk of young truck drivers operating within state lines before allowing them for interstate commerce (see “IIHS urges caution on allowing young interstate truck drivers,” July 17, 2019).

Meanwhile, a proposal from several years ago that safety advocates believe would reduce truck crashes has stalled. FMCSA had proposed requiring speed limiters in trucks used in interstate commerce, but no action has been taken since the comment period ended in November 2016.

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