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Truckers Tire of Government Sleep Rules


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Wall Street Journal / November 13, 2013

Manuel Hernandez is one of a vanishing breed: a professional long-haul trucker.

He loves backing an 18-wheeler into a tight spot. He has been patiently training new drivers for more than eight years.

Lately, though, Mr. Hernandez's patience has been worn thin by a confusing tangle of rules, efficiency directives, and electronic devices that cap his speed, log his every move, and practically try to autopilot his truck.

Magnifying the stress are more federal rule changes that took effect in July and are now roiling the industry.

Under the revised rule, the average workweek has been shortened to 70 hours from 82. They must take one 30-minute break during the first eight hours of driving. And the required 34-hour break between workweeks now must extend over two nights, including the hours between 1 a.m. and 5 a.m.

Those changes are proving more disruptive because they are added on to existing requirements that limit drivers to driving 11 hours a day and require them to rest a consecutive 10 hours.

The changes are aimed at reducing chronic fatigue and related crashes, according to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, the Department of Transportation agency responsible for highway safety. Fatalities in large truck crashes declined 26% from 5,111 to 3,757 in the decade ending in 2011, according to the FMCSA, but it considers that number still unacceptably high.

"This agency is not just mandated but driven to improve the operating environment of trucks," said Anne Ferro, the agency's administrator, in an interview.

The agency's analysis shows the latest changes—affecting drivers of about 2.3 million long-haul, heavy-load trucks—would prevent about approximately 1,400 crashes and 560 injuries and save 19 lives a year.

Ms. Ferro recently took a 34-hour truck ride from Upper Marlboro, Md., to St. Louis. She said she gained a new appreciation for the pressures on truck drivers, but the trip didn't change her mind about the need for the new revisions.

The industry says the rule is too costly and possibly even dangerous because it inadvertently puts more trucks on the roads during rush hour and forces drivers to sleep when they're wakeful and drive when they're sleepy. Two weeks ago, Schneider National Inc., a closely held trucking company, said its shipments had fallen 3% to 4% since the rule took effect. At a trucking conference sponsored by the American Trucking Associations last month, a panel of trucking executives said the rule was pushing driver turnover even higher.

Last month, three members of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure introduced legislation to delay the new, more tightly regimented 34-hour provision until it could be independently reviewed by the Government Accountability Office.

Though the debate is raging over truck driver hours, it reflects a battle of wills and agendas in the highly fragmented $642 billion industry that hauls 69% of the nation's freight.

Trucking companies are straining to boost profitability, operating on a long-standing business model that pays drivers by the mile. Safety advocates want to see that practice overhauled.

Regulators, meanwhile, are grappling with how to increase safety in an industry where 97% of the 1.3 million trucking companies have fewer than 20 trucks and shippers have the upper hand.

Neither long-haul truck drivers nor their trucking companies get paid for the myriad delays caused by shippers, Ms. Ferro said.

Trucks drivers like 50-year-old Mr. Hernandez are caught in the middle.

For Mr. Hernandez, the pressure was on as soon as he steered his shiny royal blue International ProStar out of the Mesilla Valley Transportation truck terminal in El Paso, Texas, last month and headed for Interstate 10 to California. Donning a white cowboy hat, he settled into the padded driver's seat, his "home away from home," for what was supposed to be an easy 754-mile ride to a Lowe's distribution center in Perris, Calif., to deliver 53 refrigerators that had come from an Electrolux factory in Mexico.

The "drop and hook" at Lowe's the following afternoon was the easiest kind. He would trade the loaded trailer for an empty one. Then he would drive 70 miles to a Maruzen of America warehouse in Carson, Calif., to fill that trailer with auto parts and clear Los Angeles traffic. There would be no stops, except for those required by the FMCSA.

"As long as the wheels are turning, I'm getting paid," Mr. Hernandez said. He had just finished his 34-hour mandatory break; he had 55 hours to drive in the coming 120 hours—and he aimed to use them to cover as many miles as possible.

As he began driving, a relentless chorus of electronic beeps began to go off. An electronic log—a little black computer screen to the right of his steering wheel—began recording whether the truck's motor was on or off; whether he was on duty or off; his gas mileage. Throughout the trip, his "elog" would tell him where to get gas. If his truck stopped abruptly, it would ask for an explanation, to which he would respond via touch screen.

Mr. Hernandez, who is a company driver for Las Cruces, N.M.-based Mesilla Valley Transportation, had been assigned the shortest route with stops for the cheapest gas. Mesilla's chief executive, Royal Jones, started out with one truck at age 19 and built the company into an operation that now has 1,300 trucks and 4,700 trailers on that kind of penny-pinching.

But truck trips rarely go according to plan. Traffic, breakdowns and loading delays all cost him time and pay. Truckers are paid by the mile, and Mr. Hernandez's 36 cent rate is near the top of the range. Yet, "trucking is not like a lot of jobs where you can control the time frame," he said.

On a recent trip from East Rutherford, N.J., to Dallas, he could only stand by helplessly and watch as it took eight hours for workers to unload mattress foam by hand from his truck.

Mr. Hernandez used to be able to make up lost time by taking shortcuts, or driving a little faster to avoid traffic.

Now, his "elog," the electronic monitoring system that has superseded his log book, reports even the tiniest bit of cheating on his hours or his route and a governor on his speedometer won't let him go more than 64.5 miles an hour. (Mr. Jones said he sets the governor for safety, to save wear and tear on the trucks and optimize fuel savings.)

A serious trucker, Mr. Hernandez's trips are usually two to three weeks long. But he's also a dedicated family man, so his time at home is paramount. From the start of any trip, his goal is to drive as many miles and return to El Paso to spend his 34-hour break with his wife, Teresa. They'll be married 30 years this month.

Often now, he can't. Five times since July 1, his 70 on-duty hours have run out before he can complete a trip and he and his truck have has been stranded. One of the times, he dropped a load in Dallas and then drove to a truck stop on I-20 to wait out his reset. "There was nothing to do," he said. "It can be a nightmare of having to sit for 48 hours, tired, when all you want to do is get home." When he finally does get home, it's for 10 hours and he's back on the road again.

"Who made up these rules," he asked, shaking his head. "Did they have any experience in driving truck, and traffic and dealing with customers and your breakdowns?"

The rule changes capped a decade of litigation against the FMCSA by safety advocates, drivers and plaintiff lawyers pushing for tougher driving laws, Ms. Ferro said. In a compromise, the agency agreed to review the hours of service rule, she said. Ms. Ferro began the review after she arrived in 2009.

After declining, the fatalities from large truck crashes rose in 2010 and 2011—by a total of 10% from a 2009 low of 3,380, she found. Moreover, new sleep research showed that working long hours daily and weekly eventually caused chronic fatigue, slow reaction times and reduced ability to assess situations, including your own fatigue levels.

"Prior to this rule, drivers could work as much as 82 hours in an eight-day period. Once in a while, perhaps you can do that," Ms. Ferro said. "Week after week, that schedule results in a state of chronic fatigue that impacts a driver's ability to be alert and respond." Not to mention other health problems, such as obesity and sleep apnea.

All that may be true in theory, but most truckers say the rule makes matters worse by disrupting their sleep cycles and adding stress.

Ms. Ferro's recent truck trip was an eye-opener. She said it "intensified my understanding" of why truck driving doesn't follow more sensible schedules. Many shippers don't either and they pay by the load, not by the hour. "Safety has to be built into that supply chain," she said.

Now the agency will also study the safety implications of unpaid delays caused by shippers, as well as compensation. "When you're getting paid piecework by the mile and the load, you're incented to drive as much as you can," she said. "Are those the incentives we want for somebody who's driving an 80,000 pound load 60 miles an hour?"

Indeed, Mr. Hernandez's ride to Perris, Calif., started out smoothly, but before he'd crossed into New Mexico, he began to worry about the "Banning scales," the California Highway Patrol's inspection station in the desert east of Banning, Calif. They're "super tough."

He breezed through weigh stations in Texas, New Mexico and Arizona, postponing his 30-minute break until Eloy, Ariz., near the end of his eight-hour limit. He doesn't like to stop when he is on a roll because it might make him sleepy, he said.

To stay on schedule, he still needed to drive 218 miles to reach Quartzsite, Ariz., for the night. He used to be able to alternate driving and sleeping, depending on when he got tired.

Mr. Hernandez is required to take 10 consecutive hours of rest to promote a circadian rhythm sleep cycle. The problem with imposing a rule like that on a trucker's unpredictable schedule, he said, is that "sometimes when you're not tired, you have to sleep and when you're tired, you have to drive."

That requirement has combined with the new rule changes to cut the number of miles he and his trainee can drive to about 6,000 a week, from 7,500. Pay for an experienced driver has fallen to about $50,000 from $65,000 a year, Mr. Hernandez said. New drivers are making about $40,000 at Mesilla.

Many rookies decide it isn't worth it. Some nights, there's no place to sleep because so many budget-strapped states are closing their rest stops.

Mr. Hernandez has had to park on a freeway ramp—an entrance ramp, preferably, because it's less dangerous, and with other sleeping truckers so he won't get robbed.

There's no predicting the next setback. When he arrived at the Banning scales the next day, he groaned at the long line of trucks. "We're going to waste so much time," he said. It was noon.

More than nine hours later, with nighttime setting in, he finally left Banning.

The inspectors had detected a worn part, a pivot beam bushing. The repair, which involved removing the back wheels and axle, was complicated and it looked as if he might run out of drive time and would be stuck in the desert for the night.

He had been driving less than three hours but had been on duty for 12 of his allotted 14 hours.

He drove the hour to Lowe's and then made a couple of quick stops on a newly assigned route before having to quit about midnight for another 10-hour break. Because the delay will cost him nearly 390 miles and $140, the rest of his week would be extra stressful. "Sometimes I think they're trying to choke out the trucking industry," he said.

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I hear ya! "routine" day for me averages 12-14 plus hours,if I did things "by the book" i'd be broke and on the road for three weeks with 10 stops! I'm getting pretty sick and tired of the govmints,interfererence in my livelyhood! When i'm tired I sleep,when I need a break I take one! Don't need anyone to tell me to do so! Getting tougher everyday for an O/O to make a living,but the sheep don't want people who can think and act for themselves,they want 5-6 supercarriers piloted by driving school rejects that will do what and when their told for .25 cpm........just my opinion,...............Mark

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Mack Truck literate. Computer illiterate.

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If all of the O/O followed the rules, we would be all out of business! I'm lucky most of my runs are within my 100 mile radius

Log book, we don't need no stinking log book!

I've never hauled logs myself!
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"Any Society that would give up a little LIBERTY to gain a little SECURITY will Deserve Neither and LOSE BOTH" -Benjamin Franklin

"If your gonna be STUPID, you gotta be TOUGH"

"You cant always get what you want, but if you try sometimes you get what you need"

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Loose leaf baby, its the only way I ever made it where I was going "legally"

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"Any Society that would give up a little LIBERTY to gain a little SECURITY will Deserve Neither and LOSE BOTH" -Benjamin Franklin

"If your gonna be STUPID, you gotta be TOUGH"

"You cant always get what you want, but if you try sometimes you get what you need"

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