Fixing the 14-hour rule: FMCSA moving closer to flexible sleeper-split pilot program

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Kelly Regal, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s associate administrator for research and information technology, outlined the agency’s research work around sleep and fatigue at the Managing Fatigue international conference in San Diego, Calif., Tuesday. Of perhaps principle interest to owner-operators, Regal updated attendees on progress toward what she’s calling the FMCSA’s “Flexible sleeper berth pilot program.” It’s been more than a year since any news emerged about it, following its contracting to the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute to conduct it. It will enter its data-collection phase likely later this year, Regal said.

Kimberly Honn of Washington State University reported on progress on the flexible split sleep pilot program getting under way.Kimberly Honn of Washington State University reported on progress on the flexible split sleep pilot program getting under way.

Citing studies such as that conducted by Washington State University about split sleep, Regal noted the pilot program “study will analyze drivers operating under an exemption” allowing for greater flexibility in splitting sleeper berth periods beyond the current maximum 8/2 hours split. It will then compare those in a naturalistic driving study to those operating without the flexible sleeper split.

The current step, Regal noted, is to clear the methodology and approach with the White House Office of Management and Budget for review and approval to proceed. “We’re right now planning to start data collection in the fall of 2017.” Before it starts, VTTI will be recruiting operators to participate and noted they would reach out to Overdrive when the time came.

Kimberly Honn, Washington State University principal researcher at the Sleep and Performance Research Center, also a partner on the new study, spelled out that the berth-rules exemption that would be provided to drivers participating in the study would enable 3/7-, 4/6- and 5/5-hour splits of the 10-hour required off-duty period. “We know a lot of drivers do choose daytime sleep,” Honn said, proven to be much less adequate for cognitive function/fatigue levels than split sleep in a prior study conducted by her university. “But if they can get some of their sleep during the nighttime hours it may be beneficial for them – as good as or better than consolidated daytime sleep.”

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The study and its as yet unforeseen results offer a path forward on what so many owner-operators have suggested is the correct path forward on hours — rest-period flexibility without a penalty on daily on-duty time. Owner-operator Scott Reed, for instance, speaking to Overdrive in this story from last week on the Channel 19 blog, noted the electronic logging device mandate might be acceptable with some give on the hours rule in just such a fashion. Reflecting the positions of many out there, “though I’m very anti-ELD,” he said, “I guess I can deal with it with a little give and take – if they change the hours of service so we can deal with it, that’d be great. If I don’t have to be stuck to a 14-hour clock,” with more options to split off-duty periods, “I can make it work.”

Study participants, Honn noted, would be supplied custom ELDs outfitted with alternative exemption-capable rule-sets as well as SmartDrive forward and driver-facing cameras to record critical events on the road. They would wear actigraph watches during waking and sleeping hours, capable of syncing with a supplied smartphone for recording sleep/wake patterns. Drivers would also be asked to utilize the smartphones two to four times a day for three-minute psychomotor vigilance task tests to measure response time/patterns to assess fatigue levels in order to give researchers an indication of whether those utilizing more flexible berth periods experienced substantially different fatigue outcomes than others.

“Most of our data collection efforts are passive and continuous on our drivers,” Honn said. “ELD engine diagnostic data is captured,” too, for hard braking and other events. “Because drivers will be given an hours of service exemption, we’ll be recruiting carriers for approval” in the case of company drivers. “Carriers won’t have access to the data but will know which drivers are in there.” A goal of 200-plus driver participants has been set with 50 coming from larger carriers, 50 from medium-size carriers, 50 from small fleets, and at least 25 independent owner-operators and 25 teams all told.