Shakeup could change rules for how often truck drivers take breaks: What you need to know

DURHAM, N.C. (WTVD) -- The U.S. Department of Transportation's Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) is considering a major shakeup to the regulations on truck drivers and officials want your input.

The rules on Hours of Service (HOS) are the standards by which both short haul and long haul drivers measure their drive time and their rest time.

"This proposed rule seeks to enhance safety by giving America's commercial drivers more flexibility while maintaining the safety limits on driving time," U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine L. Chao announced this past summer. "FMCSA wants drivers and all (commercial vehicle) stakeholders to share their thoughts and opinions on the proposed changes to hours of service rules that we are putting forward today. We listened directly to the concerns of drivers for rules that are safer and have more flexibility - and we have acted."

How it works now

The rules on the books right now limit long-haul truckers to 11 hours of driving time within a 14-hour on-duty window, and then drivers must take 10 consecutive hours off duty before the on-duty clock resets.

There's also a mandate that a driver can't drive more than eight hours straight without taking a break.

From the driver's perspective, however, the rules are too rigid and too costly because drivers aren't allowed to pull over and rest during major traffic jams.

CLICK HERE TO TELL FMSCA WHAT YOU THINK OF PROPOSED RULE CHANGES

"If those wheels ain't rolling, we're not making any money," Curt DeBehnke, told ABC11 at a truck stop in Mebane. "(Last week) I had to go up to Chicago and deliver up there. With all the construction, I lost five hours in three days just stuck in traffic."

Proposed rule

Based on the detailed public comments, FMCSA's proposed rule on hours of service offers five key revisions to the existing HOS rules:

  • The Agency proposes to increase safety and flexibility for the 30 minute break rule by tying the break requirement to eight hours of driving time without an interruption for at least 30 minutes, and allowing the break to be satisfied by a driver using on duty, not driving status, rather than off duty.
  • The Agency proposes to modify the sleeper-berth exception to allow drivers to split their required 10 hours off duty into two periods: one period of at least seven consecutive hours in the sleeper berth and the other period of not less than two consecutive hours, either off duty or in the sleeper berth. Neither period would count against the driver's 14-hour driving window.
  • The Agency proposes to allow one off-duty break of at least 30 minutes, but not more than three hours, that would pause a truck driver's 14-hour driving window, provided the driver takes 10 consecutive hours off-duty at the end of the work shift.
  • The Agency proposes to modify the adverse driving conditions exception by extending by two hours the maximum window during which driving is permitted.
  • The Agency proposes a change to the short-haul exception available to certain commercial drivers by lengthening the drivers' maximum onduty period from 12 to 14 hours and extending the distance limit within which the driver may operate from 100 air miles to 150 air miles.


CLICK HEAR TO READ FULL FMCSA ANNOUNCEMENT ON PROPOSED CHANGES

According to the FMCSA, the changes could provide $274 million in savings for the U.S. economy and American consumers.

"Truckers have families and want to get home safely just like everyone else. They are the most knowledgeable, highway safety advocates and the agency's proposal, overall, recognizes that fact," Todd Spencer, President of Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association (OOIDA), said.

The newly announced proposed rulemaking includes expanding the short haul air-mile radius from 100 to 150 air miles, extending the short haul duty period from 12 to 14 hours, modifying the 30-minute rest break to only apply after 8 hours driving, the creation of an "adverse driving" provision, the ability to stop the 14-hour clock, and options for drivers to split their time, commonly referred to as a split sleeper berth provision.

"Over the past decade, truck drivers have been more regulated than ever, and more compliant than ever, and yet crashes are going up," Todd Spencer, President of Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association (OOIDA), said. "There may not be a one-size fits all solution, but the proposed changes are a positive start since truckers don't have any control over their schedules or traffic conditions. For too long and too often, they find themselves in unsafe circumstances because of current, overly restrictive rules that decrease highway safety."

NC drivers worry about changes

The Tar Heel State's growing population and significant location make it a busy crossroads for the trucking industry.

According to the North Carolina Trucking Association, the industry employs nearly 220,000 people in the state, and the trucks haul some 324,805 tons of freight every day.

That's the equivalent of more than 1,000 Boeing 747 Jumbo Jets.

"Without trucks, we wouldn't have what we have," DeBehnke said. "We haul everything the stores are going to get and people don't realize that."

Most people do realize, however, that trucks take up a lot of space and share the road with commuters and travelers in much, much smaller vehicles.

"I-40 and I-95 - those are probably the roughest ones to me," Jeff Futch, a Raleigh resident, tells ABC11. "No matter how safe a driver you are, you always in the back of your mind worry about what is the next person going to do."

Futch personally witnessed a violent crash involving a tractor-trailer last summer in Johnston County. Three people were killed.

"I could see everything," Futch said. "I couldn't sleep for like a week afterwards. It really put my life in perspective."

Though driver fatigue was not a factor in that specific crash, Futch said he worries what changes to the rules could mean for truck drivers.

"I think the drivers are trying to make these loads as quick as possible so they can get another load," Futch said. "The more loads you get, the more loads you get paid. That's what it seems to me. I think if you make a safe trip you should get some kind of bonus. Add bonuses to the pay scale if you're a safe driver."

Indeed, trucks are hardly the only vehicles involved in crashes, but when they are they are often more destructive.

A NCDOT analysis for ABC11 counts 8,923 crashes involving heavy trucks in 2018 - more than 900 more than 2017. Those crashes killed 114 people and injured 3,278 others.



According to the NCDOT, crash statistics for heavy truck crashes involving a fatigued or asleep truck driver "are almost certainly underreported." Officials told ABC11 that reporting fatigue relies on the driver to self-report or for the reporting officer to identify and mention it in the crash report.



Where truck drivers and car drivers agree

The proposed changes to HOS rules do not need congressional approval, and will instead require the sign off of the FMSCA and the Office of Management and Budget.

Sources told ABC11 the regulations would not go into effect until at least six months after the potential approval.

Asked about driver concerns about fatigue, truck driver Carl DeBehnke acknowledges the responsibility of truckers to know their bodies and know the consequences. Still, he speaks strongly about what he says he sees from his high perch behind the wheel.

"I have seen so many wrecks because people are on their cell phones," DeBehnke said. "They weave, they speed up and slow down, and then if you beep at them because they're on their phone, they flip you off. It's just dangerous."

Futch, likewise, agreed that all vehicles need to be more cognizant of sharing the road and slowing down

"I remember riding with somebody and he said, 'you drive like a grandma.'" Futch said. "I said, 'yes and we're going to get there on time and we're going to get there safely.'"
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