Truck drivers lament loss of flexibility with new government rules

July 18, 2013

From The Jacksonville Business Journal:

Kirk Williams, CEO of Proficient Auto Transport, said new rules will make it harder to use truck drivers over weekends.

Nikita Stallings is still trying to figure out what the new federal regulations on truck driver hours of service will mean to him.

Sitting at a Travel Centers of America lunch counter in Baldwin behind plates of food piled high enough for two men, he thinks it through.

“As far as I know, I have to take a break after every 8-hour period,†said the owner-operator from Wilmington, N.C. “And I can’t start working again at the end of my week unless I’ve been off two times between 1 a.m. and 5 a.m.â€

The new U.S. Department of Transportation rule, which puts extra limits on how long truck drivers can work without a break, took effect July 1.

For drivers, it’s not the extra rest that’s the biggest problem. It’s the loss of flexibility.

A trucker sitting nearby tells Stallings if he takes his half-hour break too soon, he’ll be forced to take a second one before his 11-hour workday ends — more miles and money lost.

Also, Stallings can’t restart his workweek after the required 34 hours’ rest if that period ends the middle of the afternoon, because it did not include two consecutive nights.

“It means I could actually be sitting here for a lot more time than 34 hours,†he said. “I think that’s going to hurt us. I guess I’ll end up getting more rest.â€

The DOT has said the stricter rules will increase safety. The agency estimates it will save 19 lives and prevent 1,400 crashes and 560 injuries each year. Violating the rules can cost as much as $2,700 for drivers and $11,000 for motor carriers in fines for each offense.

The American Trucking Association, an industry trade group, has estimated the rules will increase costs and lower productivity by 1.5 percent to 4 percent, resulting in industry losses of $500 million to $1.4 billion. A pending ATA lawsuit has failed to stop the regulations before they took effect.

“We’d really like to keep the old rules,†said Sean McNally, a spokesman for the association. Implemented in 2004, those rules reduced truck crashes and fatalities by 30 percent.

“Our position is fatigue is still a contributing factor to crashes, but it’s not the most common,†he said. “We’d like instead to see proper enforcement and use of technology to reduce speed and look for aggressive driving and people who are in a hurry.â€

Like Stallings, Jacksonville trucking companies expect to struggle with the loss of flexibility because of the update to the rules.

Kirk Williams, CEO of Jacksonville’s Proficient Auto Transport Inc., said the 34-hour/two nights rest rule will make it harder to use drivers over weekends. The car dealers that take his deliveries are already closed Sundays, and the weekend rest rule will add more complexity to the picture.

Also, he believes truckers will be less able to drive at nights, when traffic is the lightest.

Proficient Auto’s delivery routes average 350 miles, a short enough distance to avoid engineering a lot of breaks, Williams said. Long-haul trucking companies will see more of an impact.

Jacksonville-based Suddath Co. uses its own truck drivers to move households, offices, industrial plants, multinational organizations and the military. It has more than 500 qualified contract drivers, and about 300 of them travel long-distance or interstate routes, meaning the impact will be significant. The time to pack and unpack households counts toward the workday hours.

One adjustment Suddath has made is to hire third-party driver companies, said Paul Gleason, corporate vice president of operations.

“If we happen to have a driver at somebody’s house at 7 o’clock at night and they’ve run out of hours and can’t drive the truck back, we send the third-party driver out there at our expense to pick that truck up and bring it back,†he said.

Also, the company at some locations hired part-time drivers on standby — again, in case a full-time driver runs out of hours.

“Generally we support the Department of Transportation rules and restrictions,†Gleason said. “Safety is the most important thing and we put it before profits and even before customers.

“What’s important to us, though, is to make sure everyone’s on a level playing field, because we’re going to have to pass the costs on to the customers.â€

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