How often do you use toothpicks to keep your sleepy eyes open while driving? I hope never. But when it comes to managing fatigue, toothpicks would be about as effective as the current hours-of-service regulations. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration in December submitted a new hours-of-service proposal to the White House. Will it be any more workable than the ill-fated April 2000 plan? And the bigger question: Will any hours proposal, no matter how well thought out, make trucking safer?
Arguably not. Regulations can only manage hours worked, not a driver’s level of fatigue or ability to operate his vehicle safely. Scientists who study fatigue agree that it varies from person to person. Some of us need eight or nine hours of sleep. Many feel fine after six. Some folks are morning people; others are night owls.
Knowing that, there is no point in telling truckers when or for how long they can drive, or that they must keep a written record of every move. Such a system only regulates what a driver’s log book says he did. It does nothing to manage fatigue or to keep our highways safe.
Throwing out the log book and judging a driver’s fitness not on how many hours he has available, but on how safely he operates his truck, makes sense. In fact, a 1999 study of the 100 worst carriers in North Carolina found no relationship between crash risk and driver out-of-service rates, which reflect log book violations. It did find a link between the number of moving violations on a driver’s record and his crash risk.
This study is by no means definitive. But it does point out what every trucker knows: How well he drives impacts safety; how well he completes his log book does not.
Imagine a performance-based system that concentrated on getting reckless truckers off the road while rewarding good drivers with the flexibility to set their own hours as long as they continue to operate safely. Safety advocates would be outraged, but they should be willing to go along with a plan that has safety, rather than compliance, as its primary goal.
As the hours-of-service debate begins anew, let’s hope FMCSA will be willing to look at commonsense approaches that allow truckers to take responsibility for their own safety. Current law allows the DOT to grant exemptions from regulations, including hours of service, as long as they do not compromise safety. Instituting a pilot performance-based program could be the first step toward improving the safety of our nation’s roadways and the quality of truckers’ lives.