Regulation can do more harm than good, especially regarding safety. This reality is behind an overdue update this week of a federal rule on truck-driver hours.
The current regime is a relic of the 1930s when unions wanted limits on trucker hours so employers hired more drivers. Those rules have grown onerous in a new world of owner-operators, many of whom long evaded the sillier restrictions by creatively editing their paper log books.
That flexibility ended in 2017 with an Obama rule mandating electronic logging devices in trucks. The main consequence of this strict monitoring has been to cause drivers to engage in a hazardous daily race to beat the clock, driving through exhaustion, rush-hour congestion or poor weather. Drivers are also earning less, while transport costs have increased.
The proposed new hours-of-service rule from the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration restores flexibility to commercial drivers. Drivers are currently allowed to work 14 hours a day, 11 of them driving. But once they punch the electronic clock, nothing stops it. Most drivers are paid by the mile, so this creates an incentive to keep on truckin’—no matter the road conditions.
The new rule would let drivers “pause” for an off-duty rest of up to three hours, and to break up their mandated off-duty time. Drivers could extend their window of driving time up to two additional hours if they encounter bad weather.
The proposal would also rationalize the “30-minute rest break” provision. Drivers are now required after eight hours of work to stop for 30 minutes—no matter where they are. This can compel truckers to pull over in emergency lanes or other potential danger zones. The new rule would let truckers count as break time when they are on-duty but not driving (such as loading cargo or filling the gas tank).
Unions are objecting to the changes, even as they ignore that the most important requirements remain. The rule doesn’t increase the allowable daily driving time and doesn’t let truckers drive more than eight consecutive hours without a break. It still requires them to take 10 hours off duty every day. The changes give drivers more control over how their day is broken up, and more ability to manage fatigue, bad roads or traffic. Truckers care more than anybody else about getting home safely and protecting their equipment—which for many is an investment and livelihood.
The new rule will also relieve some inefficiencies and higher costs caused by the Obama rule. The trucking industry employs more than seven million people and moves 70% of the nation’s domestic freight. The new rule is estimated to provide $270 million in savings for the economy and consumers. But its biggest payoff will be restoring to truckers the ability to manage their time to drive safely.