Issues & Positions
Jan. 4: The reality is beginning to dawn

Jim Johnston

On April 24 of this year, when the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration announced the first major revision to drivers’ hours-of-service regulations since they were first implemented in 1939, many within the industry breathed a huge sigh of relief. The American Trucking Association declared victory, and large trucking company executives applauded the rules change as realistic and workable.

There were two primary reasons for this false sense of euphoria. First, the rules changes originally proposed were far more restrictive and complicated and contained the black box monitoring requirement as an enforcement tool. Second, the reduction from 15 to 14 consecutive hours on-duty time combined with an increase from 10 to 11 hours allowed driving time, appeared to those folks not real tightly connected to reality as a minimal and perhaps even an offsetting change. Add to that the 34-hour restart provision, and those folks thought they had actually made some gains in the ability to squeeze even more productivity out of their driver work force.

The dawning of reality in this case, of course, is that point when you suddenly realize you might have overlooked some previously insignificant factor that is now going to become very significant. The insignificant factor here that is about to screw up the whole system from the corporate management perspective is the enormous number of unrecorded and uncompensated hours that drivers have historically been expected to contribute. For drivers, of course, this time has never been considered insignificant. In fact, it can and often does amount to as much as 40 percent to 50 percent of the work time invested. It robs you of productive, compensated work time. It adds significantly to the hours required to earn a living, and it substantially diminishes valuable time that might otherwise be spent at home with your families.

The industry, for the most part, has not only ignored this problem, but, in fact, has willingly participated in further developing an environment that contributes to its increasing growth and perpetuation. The reason for the oblivious attitude toward the problem is that most don’t think it costs them anything other than an occasional complaint from drivers. It has become common practice to expect and even pressure drivers to record this time as either off-duty or sleeper-berth time, even though in most cases it is required by law to be recorded as on-duty. If drivers do record this time and it puts them over hours, the logs are either given back with instructions to “make the necessary corrections” or they are given a reprimand for the violation that goes in their driver file to cover the carrier in case of a DOT audit. If the time is not properly recorded and you get caught, you’re on your own to pay the penalties, plus you still get the letter of reprimand.

The culprit here that’s causing all the sudden heartburn is a little provision that at first glance, at least to the uninformed, seemed to have very little significance. That is that the 14-hour on-duty clock starts running when the driver starts or reports for work and doesn’t stop until the driver goes off-duty at the end of 14 hours. Fuel stops, meal breaks, breakdowns, traffic delays, loading and unloading time, as well as the time waiting to load or unload is all included in the 14 hours. The fact that motor carriers are now realizing this is going to produce a tremendous reduction in productivity should be proof positive to anyone paying attention that the industry was well aware of and at the very least condoned the practice of not recording those times as required under current regulations.

The other part of the equation is the rapidly rebounding economy and the re-emergence of the driver shortage that increasing freight volumes are beginning to make evident.

The driver shortage has, in fact, existed now for over a decade but in recent years has been obscured by depressed economic conditions and abnormally lower freight volumes. In their usual shortsighted wisdom, large motor carriers (the industry leaders) began raising driver compensation at the economic high in order to attract qualified drivers, then immediately dropped it back as the economy began to falter after 9-11. The predictable result was that good, qualified drivers left the industry, and those carriers quickly returned to the practice of recruiting entry-level drivers in their quest to pay the lowest compensation possible.

While drivers looking at their bottom-line compensation right now may find it difficult to believe a driver shortage exists, it’s important to recognize the economic recovery is just now moving into high gear. The large fleets are already cashing in with higher rates and substantially increased profits. They simply don’t have adequate incentive yet to share any of that increased wealth with their drivers. For most of these mental giants, that type of forward thinking is always a last resort.

In the association’s research leading up to our sponsorship and promotion of June Safety Compliance Month, our findings were that strict compliance with current hours-of-service regulations would result in as much as a 30 percent to 40 percent drop in driver productivity. Unless immediate steps are taken to eliminate or substantially reduce the many inefficiencies in this industry that are currently absorbed almost entirely by drivers, compliance with the new regulations will create an even greater shortfall in productivity. That shortfall, in conjunction with the driver shortage, could create a monumental impact capable of shaking the current truck transportation system to its roots.

There is a loophole, though, that I haven’t mentioned: That is the split sleeper berth provision, which is the only means available under the new regulations to stop the 14-hour clock and extend the workday. Not surprisingly, those same interests that have traditionally profited from pressuring drivers to log non-driving responsibilities as off-duty are busily at work trying to gain the most liberal interpretation of this provision possible.

Unfortunately, but also not surprisingly, much of the discussion we have heard from drivers also revolves around the split sleeper berth provision and how it can be used to stop the clock and extend the workday. Old habits die hard. For decades, we have managed to minimize the true effect of federal hours-of-service regulations through creative logging. Will we now attempt to do the same with the new regulations to minimize their true impact? Will we protect those who have profited the most from having to face this reality?

If we do, we can probably keep the current system and its resulting work environment going for many years into the future or at least until the government finds an effective way to enforce the regulations. Those who get caught, of course, will continue to pay the price.

The bottom line is if you like things the way they are, you should just keep doing things the same way you have in the past. If you want change, then you must change your way of dealing with the problem.