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June 30, 2014 3:30 AM, EDT

Fleets Struggle With HOS Effects in 1st Year Since Restart Change

By Michele Fuetsch and Jonathan S. Reiskin, Staff Reporters

This story appears in the June 30 print edition of Transport Topics.

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration says the changes to the hours-of-service restart rule, which marks its first anniversary this week, are saving lives and making the roads safer.

However, as Congress continues to battle over the future of the provisions, trucking executives say the changes that took effect July 1, 2013, have reduced productivity and hurt drivers’ quality of life.

“I’m 100 drivers short on Monday mornings from where I’d like to be,” said Kevin Burch, president of Jet Express in Dayton, Ohio.

Jet’s drivers have been working Saturdays to supply automobile assembly plants, but due to the changes in the restart provision, Burch can’t use those drivers on Monday mornings.

Similar stories about driver problems and productivity losses are coming from carriers as they grapple with the year-old restart changes.

“There are instances when we used to get three turns a week, and now it’s maybe two,” said Randal Mullett, a vice president with Con-way Inc., No. 3 on the Transport Topics Top 100 list of for-hire carriers in the United States and Canada.

FMCSA, headed by Anne Ferro, continues to defend the rule, however, as it did in a statement sent last week to TT.

The HOS provisions are the product of “extensive, real-world research and save an estimated 19 lives by preventing 1,400 crashes each year,” the agency said.

“We know from research and experience that a fatigued driver is a dangerous driver,” FMCSA said. “That’s why we are very concerned about attempts to relax, even temporarily, the number of hours a truck driver could work from the 70-hour maximum on the books today to 82 hours a week.”

But dealing with the changes has been particularly difficult because their first year coincided with improving tonnage levels, Burch said. That means Jet and other carriers are hauling more freight just as the rules got more complicated.

“It’s really a difficult time,” said Burch, a vice chairman of American Trucking Associations and a former chairman of the Truckload Carriers Association.

One of Jet’s main businesses is hauling car parts for automotive assembly plants, dedicated contract carriage that involves routes run like bus schedules. Under the new restart provision, Jet must schedule in a new driver once a week.

“Shippers are concerned about new drivers coming in to use their docks and they’re not familiar,” Burch said. “I’d think FMCSA would want to encourage regular routes because they’re safer, but the new restart rule has turned that upside down.”

Effects of the change have not been spread evenly throughout freight transportation, Con-way’s Mullett said.

The company’s truckload division has felt it most heavily and the less-than-truckload unit the least, he said.

In addition, Con-way’s Menlo Worldwide, a third-party logistics provider, has met with more problems in buying truckload services, Mullett said.

“Menlo buys hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of truckload services every year,” he said. Much of that is done on the spot market, and the rule change has driven up spot prices, Mullett said.

The rule has led to more meetings with drivers and shippers over lost productivity and, beyond the changes to the 34-hour restart period, the once-a-week restart limit has complicated scheduling, he said.

Under the previous rule, a driver could take time off midweek before embarking on a lengthy assignment with a fresh supply of hours, but now that’s not allowed.

“This cuts into quality of life,” Mullett said.

At Melton Truck Lines, the Tulsa, Oklahoma, flatbed carrier, drivers miss their flexibility, said Angela Buchanan, vice president of human resources and safety. Melton urges drivers to stop and rest rather than drive tired, but the new rule can make it more difficult to do that, she said.

“We want the driver to be the captain of his ship,” Buchanan said, but now drivers must tie their breaks and road hours to regulatory standards rather than their state of alertness.

Congress has expressed concern, too, about productivity and whether highways are more congested during peak travel times now that the restart rule requires truckers to have two consecutive rest periods between 1 a.m. and 5 a.m. before they can start a new workweek. For some, that now means beginning work in the mornings.

A $126 billion Senate appropriations bill contains a proposal by Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) to deny funding for last year’s HOS changes. Collins’ proposal also would require FMCSA to study the safety effects of the changes and justify any safety claims to Congress.

But nearly two weeks after Democrats and Republicans in the Senate pulled the expansive fiscal 2015 bill from floor consideration after failing to agree on a path forward, the fate of the provision to suspend is uncertain.

Staff Reporters Eugene Mulero and Eric Miller contributed to this report.