Bending The Rule

We’ve all known people who run red lights, pass in no-passing zones and generally think that the rules of the road don’t apply to them. Safety, they believe, is other people’s concern – not theirs.

Now that same reckless disregard for safety is being applied to the new hours-of-service rule. The utility industry, which operated under the previous hours-of-service rule, is seeking a complete exemption from all federal and state hours-of-service regulations for drivers of gas, water and electric service vehicles. This exemption is in the House and Senate versions of the highway bill – a big step toward making it a reality.

Granted, these are not 80,000-pound long-haul vehicles, but the work utility drivers do is physically exhausting – perhaps even more so than driving for several hours each day. And their safety record is no better than the remainder of trucking. In fact, over the past three years, utility vehicle and driver out-of-service rates were higher than that of the rest of the trucking industry and getting worse, according to the Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance.

So what does this mean to you? After all, utilities make up a relatively small segment of trucking and spend minimal time on the highways where you make your living. But here’s the thing. If the new hours-of-service rule is truly about saving lives, how can one segment of the industry – especially one with a questionable safety record – be given a pass?

“It sets a bad precedent,” says Dick Henderson, CVSA director of government affairs. Other industry segments have attempted to water down the rule, as well. Citing cost concerns, Wal-Mart and Tyson Foods tried unsuccessfully to get an amendment into the highway bill that would have returned short-haul drivers to the old rule.

The bottom line: The new rule is tough on everyone. Owner-operators are struggling with how to comply and still make a living. Carriers are working to keep pay up while convincing shippers to share the responsibility. Shippers are revamping their operations to keep productivity up and rate and detention costs down. In the six months since the rule went into effect, most have resigned themselves to working within it. For Congress to exempt certain segments so early in the process, leaving everyone else to sink or swim, is “unfair and sends the wrong signal to the rest of the industry,” Henderson says.

The rule is not perfect. Whether or not it will save the 75 lives annually the
Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration projects remains to be seen. But Congress needs to leave it in place for a few more months, hold hearings that involve all segments of the industry and then make changes that make sense – for everyone, not a select few.

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Overdrive editors and ATBS present the industry’s best manual for prospective and committed owner-operators. You’ll find exceptional depth on many issues in the 2021 edition of Partners in Business.
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