34-hour restart rules to be suspended: Congress clears legislation to roll back 2013 provisions

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Updated Dec 15, 2014

hoursTwo provisions of the 2013 changes to hours-of-service regulations for truck operators will be suspended at least until Sept. 30, 2015, and FMCSA will be required to further study the rules and their impact before the rules can take effect again.

The order comes from Congress: The Senate late Saturday night passed a spending bill already passed by the House that includes a provision to put a stay of enforcement on the federal rules (a) requiring a drivers’ 34-hour restart to include two 1 a.m. to 5 a.m. periods and (b) limiting the use of a 34-hour restart to once per week.

President Barack Obama voiced his support for the bill last week and was expected to sign it.

The law dictates that the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration issue a notice in the Federal Register “as soon as possible” announcing the suspension of the rules in question, which will make the stay of enforcement official. Several attempts made by Overdrive on Thursday and Friday to talk to a representative at FMCSA about when and how the agency will proceed were met with no response.

The law will also require the agency to perform a “naturalistic study” of the restart rules to determine their impacts on safety, health and carrier operations. The study must be overseen and reviewed by the DOT’s Inspector General, and the bill dictates that the two rules suspended will not go back into effect until FMCSA completes the study and can show Congress that the rules “provide a greater net benefit for the operation, safety, health and fatigue impacts” than not. More on the bill’s study requirements will be posted on Overdrive next week.

Congress unveiled its 1,600-page appropriations bill earlier this week, and it was billed as a bi-partisan agreement crafted by top brass from both chambers of Congress. However, prominent lawmakers from both political parties and from both chambers began voicing their unhappiness with some provisions in the bill, making its passage uncertain at points.

Congress had to pass two stopgap spending bills to avoid a government shutdown and to give Congressional leaders more time to rally support for the bill. The House passed its version late Thursday, and the Senate — in an apparent nine-hour marathon voting session — passed its version late Saturday.

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As shown by the below polling, conducted over the course of the past several days at OverdriveOnline.com, a majority of drivers have continued to rely on the restart regularly prior to the removal of the once-per-week and time-of-day restrictions on its use.

Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance Executive Director Steve Keppler suggested variability in enforcement around the nation in the immediate aftermath of the rule change was likely given the speed at which it happened. “People can’t just turn on a dime when something like this takes place,” he says. State enforcement representatives enforce state law, technically, not federal law. In many states, federal law is adopted automatically. In others, that’s not so. “They have to go through some in-state processes, so we’re likely to see inconsistency and uniformity issues for a while –- that’s got implications for data quality and CSA.”

And for drivers knowing they’re within the law. “To me,” Keppler says, “if I’m a driver I’m looking for something official from FMCSA. I need something official from the agency and from state enforcement officials.” The enforcement community, he adds, is in the same boat. “We need the same thing.” Until a Federal Register notice appears, he says. “I’m continuing to operate as before.”

“This is one of the reasons we don’t make rule changes through legislatures,” Keppler adds. The administrative “rule change process allows you to work your way into these things.”

Industry and enforcement, together, will have to “make the best of it,” he says.

For drivers using paper logs, after the change’s effective date, reverting to use of the 34-hour restart without restriction to reset a full slate of hours will come with little technical change beyond a greater set of options for resetting to choose from. If you’re utilizing electronic logs, however, given the speed at which the change has happened, as with the potential problems with enforcement uniformity around the country that Keppler notes, your e-logs vendor may or may not be able to immediately update software to reflect the legality of just any 34-hour restart period.

Prior to updates, depending on the system, the e-log may flag you in violation if you reset hours after a restart that violates the prior rule. But as noted Tom Cuthbertson, vice president for regulatory compliance for e-log vendor Omnitracs, showing a violation in your own system is one thing — enforcement at the roadside is quite another.

At once, he says updates to any Omnitracs system will proceed over the course of likely around a month following the change. Prior to the successful vote in the Senate, Cuthbertson said preparations at the company were already under way. “We’ve looked at all our systems that would be affected by this change. We’re taking a very concise review of them [to ensure that with updates to the rule set] we protect the integrity of the last six months’ worth of information” to conform to FMCSA’s record-keeping requirements.

All told, he added, “It’s a minimum change. It’s a clean change.”

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