Life on 18 wheels is about to get a bit more flexible.
Alex Davies covers autonomous vehicles and other transportation machines for WIRED.
On Wednesday, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration proposed changes to regulations governing how long truckers can stay on the road. The agency says the changes are all about improving safety by giving drivers more power to decide when they drive and when they rest. It also argues that because drivers will be able to use their time more efficiently (taking breaks when the road’s congested, for example), carriers will save $274 million a year. The proposed changes will soon be published in the Federal Register, which will start a 45-day public comment period before the feds make any final calls.
The would-be rules don’t change how long drivers can stay on the road—still limited to 14 hours on duty, with at most 11 actually driving, followed by at least 10 hours off. Instead, they address how drivers handle mandatory breaks. Today, a trucker must take a 30-minute break after eight hours on duty, which can include waiting for a vehicle to be loaded or unloaded, pumping diesel, or handling paperwork. One new rule would change that to a 30-minute break after eight hours of behind-the-wheel driving. Another would allow a driver to essentially pause the clock for up to three hours on the 14 hours they can spend on duty. That way, they can spend seven hours on duty, rest up for three, then get back on the road for another seven—as long as they then take the mandatory 10-hour break that follows the 14-hour stretch.
The feds are also looking to update the “sleeper-berth exemption.” Today, a driver can use some of their 10-hour break during their 14-hour window. This is a popular move for long-haul truckers: drive six hours, nap in the back of the cab for eight, drive another five, nap another two, and so on. But the current rules say a driver must split those 10 hours into one eight-hour break and one two-hour break. The changes would allow drivers to divide the time however they like—as long as one block is at least seven hours.
The American Trucking Associations, which represents mostly large trucking companies, supports the proposed changes. So do the smaller guys. “Some of this stuff is simple common sense,” says Todd Spencer, the president of the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association. “We believe that drivers are in the best position to know when it makes sense for them to stop and take a break.” More flexibility means truckers can better avoid rush-hour traffic, he argues.
The unspoken force behind these rule changes is another shift in the American trucking industry. Since December 2017, the FMCSA has required many trucks to carry electronic logging devices, or ELDs, which keep track of when the driver is and isn’t driving. The device, which pulls data off the vehicle’s computer, means drivers can’t ignore hours of service rules—or even bend them by fudging the logs they used to keep on paper. One result was a 15 percent drop in trucking capacity at the start of 2018, as drivers adjusted to the electronic monitoring. The logging devices put drivers in “a pressure cooker,” Spencer says. “They can’t have any infractions. They can be cited, disciplined, or fired.” (His group sued to stop the mandate, using arguments against illegal search and seizure and the right against self-incrimination, without success.)
Stricter enforcement of the hours-of-service rules, it seems, helped trigger the new proposed changes. In a speech this summer, FMCSA chief Ray Martinez appeared to agree that the electronic data has pushed his agency to rethink its rules. “A benefit of the ELD is the opportunity to review hours of service,” he said.
Another factor at play is the political reality, says Dave Osiecki, the president of Scopelitis Transportation Consulting, who spent a decade as an FMCSA regulator and another two at the American Trucking Associations. “Flexibility,” he says, is “code for more liberal rules.” Under President Trump and Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, all sorts of rules have been relaxed. And while these latest tweaks may have been triggered by the ELD mandate, they could also undercut it. One proposed change expands the definition of short-haul trucking from driving 100 “air miles” (industry jargon for “as the crow flies”) a day to 150 miles, and from 12 to 14 hours. That will increase the number of short-haul drivers, who today number about 600,000, out of 3.5 million total. “There are many, many drivers who exceed 100 miles, but don’t exceed 150,” Osiecki says. But here’s the catch: Because their driving patterns are different and don’t involve spending all that much time on the road, short-haul truckers don’t have to put ELDs in their vehicles.
Though the FMCSA must wait for the 45-day comment period, proposed rules don’t tend to change too much after they’re published, Osiecki says. And for many truckers, that’s great news. As the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association said it on its website: “It’s about freakin’ time. Literally.”