Trucking regulators look to alleviate cost increases, while keeping safety first

Smart Business

(by Jayne Gest with Boyd Stephenson)

The trucking industry is still adjusting to the final transition to electronic logging devices (ELDs). Some relief may be on the horizon, however, as federal regulators consider whether to relax the hours of service requirements.

“Every solution has unintended consequences, and that is exactly what we are seeing now,” says Boyd A. Stephenson, associate at Babst Calland. “The supply chain is like a balloon, where everything is interconnected. You push on one part and another piece will pop out.”

Paper logbooks are left to the discretion of the driver, while ELDs record driving time automatically to ensure driving hours are strictly followed. The idea is to make the roads safer. Effective now, strict enforcement of the ELD mandate applies to all drivers, unless they operate under the short-haul rule exemption.

The trucking industry is dealing with rising transportation costs and an overall driver shortage in an economic expansion. Freight volumes also grew more slowly in 2019, with trade conflicts and tariff increases taking a toll on growth.

An American Transportation Research Institute survey found that the top industry concerns for 2019 were driver shortages, hours of service, driver compensation and detention or delays at customer facilities. These obstacles increase trucking costs, which get passed on to shippers that need their goods transported.

Smart Business spoke with Stephenson about hours of service rules and other industry changes that businesses should be aware of in 2020.

Why did the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) feel a need to change the hours of service rules?

With ELDs in place, drivers cannot adjust their logs. Difficulties like wait time while cargo is loaded or unloaded, weather and traffic have highlighted the need to adjust the hours of service and let drivers spend more time on the road. Based on strong industry feedback, the FMCSA proposed more flexible hours of service in August, which it hopes will alleviate some industry challenges.

The agency proposes to:

  • Extend the short-haul exemption, where drivers are not required to keep logbooks. As of now, to be considered short haul, a driver must drive only within a 100 air-mile radius, start and return to the same location with 12 hours of duty time, drive no more than 11 hours and have 10 consecutive hours off between shifts. The updated exemption would apply to those who drive 150 air miles and allow short-haul drivers to be on duty for 14 hours.
  • Give more flexibility for driver breaks and sleeper berth requirements.
  • Allow one off-duty break, lasting between 30 minutes and three hours, that would allow the driver to pause the clock on his or her 14-hour window.

The majority of truck traffic operates under the short-haul exemption, and more liberalized hours of service should have wide-ranging effects on the overall supply chain, such as flexibility and lower costs.

With the comment period over, the FMCSA hopes get a final rule out this year.

What is the Beyond Compliance program, and what does it mean for fleet operators?

Regulators also would like to implement the Beyond Compliance program, which would give incentives to fleet operators that adopt proven safety tools, technologies or practices, such as collision warning. With the comment period closing in February 2020, the final rules have yet to be determined. However, short-haul drivers that use ELDs and implement the Beyond Compliance program may have one incentive, as they will be more likely to be sent on their way if a roadside inspection site is busy. Compliance with this program factors into the carrier and driver history that is already considered.

Businesses with truck fleets should be proactive with safety technology, as these investments can pay off. Not only will adopting these technologies deprioritize a truck’s chance of getting inspected, but the resulting improved safety performance makes the truck safer, which also lowers the required inspection rate and factors into insurance costs.

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