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April 28, 2014 3:45 AM, EDT

ATRI Slams Safety Claims in HOS Restart Report

By Jonathan S. Reiskin, Associate News Editor

This story appears in the April 28 print edition of Transport Topics.

The American Transportation Research Institute said a government-commissioned study of the federal hours-of-service rule change was overly generous in crediting the new regulation for improving safety.

ATRI said the study released by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration in January did a poor job of assessing the changes caused by the new restart provision in effect since July. The agency said the new rule has been useful in combating driver fatigue, but ATRI said that conclusion is based on extremely small differences that are difficult even to measure.

“The FMCSA study presents findings, but they are built on very, very minute differences. The study makes it sound like they are real differences but they’re not,” said ATRI President Rebecca Brewster.

The April 22 report from ATRI was prepared in response to FMCSA’s January document that looked at the restart provision — which mandates a 34-hour minimum weekend, including time off from 1 a.m. to 5 a.m. on two consecutive days. Drivers could take the time off in the sleeper berths of their cabs, in hotels or their homes.

FMCSA personnel were given the ATRI memo to review and defended the restart provision.

“ATRI’s report is an attempt to cloud the fact that the updated hours-of-service rule is working to ensure that truck drivers who work extreme schedules of up to 70 hours a week are getting the recuperation time they need before getting back behind the wheel. A well-rested commercial driver is a safer driver,” the agency said.

ATRI found numerous faults with the third-party study commissioned by FMCSA, including:

• Looking at just 106 drivers over 12 days is insufficient to draw a broad conclusion for the nation’s 1.6 million heavy-duty drivers, ATRI said.

• The FMCSA researchers un-fairly compared a restart provision with just one early morning off over 34 hours with a weekend of more than 34 hours in time off.

• The new restart provision forces drivers onto the highways during peak traffic times of 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., thereby increasing the chance for an accident to occur.

• The difference in sleep obtained by the two duty-cycle groups under examination on their restart breaks differed by just six minutes per 24-hour period, which is insufficient to make a claim of more recuperative sleep, the institute said.

At the Mid-America Trucking Show in March, FMCSA Administrator Anne Ferro said she stood squarely behind the restart provision and the research that supports it. Her agency’s response to ATRI was consistent with that.

“The third-party study released earlier this year is one of the largest real-world studies ever conducted with commercial drivers,” FMCSA said of the sample-size issue.

ATRI also criticized FMCSA for reaching large conclusions based on small differences in results.

Discussing lane variation, FMCSA said lane deviation decreased with the new rule. ATRI said that while there was a decrease, it was to an average of 18.7 centimeters from 18.8 centimeters — a difference of one millimeter, or 3.9% of an inch.

Similarly, FMCSA said drivers get more sleep with the new version, but ATRI said the improvement was to 8.9 hours out of 24 from 8.8 hours, an increase of six minutes.

FMCSA hired a researcher from Washington State University to prepare the study, ordered by Congress as part of the MAP-21 highway bill that runs through Sept. 30.

There was a 34-hour restart provision in the previous version of the HOS rule. The key change has been the mandate that the off-period must contain two stretches of early morning hours. Trucking companies have said that needlessly limits much valued flexibility.

“FMCSA has heard loudly and clearly from carriers and drivers that the new rules are not advancing safety and are creating additional stress and fatigue on the part of truck drivers,” said Steve Rush, president of tank truck carrier Carbon Express of Wharton, N.J.

“ATRI’s analysis raises enough questions about FMCSA’s own study that should compel a comprehensive review of the entire rule,” said Rush, who was quoted by ATRI because of his interest in the topic.

ATRI’s memo also panned the Washington State study for its estimates on costs. Research by the institute identified net costs added to trucking range from $95 million to $376 million. In contrast, FMCSA estimated net benefits of $133 million a year based on the switch to the new restart.

The memo also cited a peculiarity regarding the nature of the drivers selected for the study. FMCSA’s 2011 Regulatory Impact Analysis of the rule said only about 15% of drivers would be affected by the restart provision. However, that was not the case among the 106 drivers in the January. Fifty-one of them, or 48.1%, had to use the new restart to keep operating — or more than three times the amount the agency had estimated.