Once upon a time in the olden days, a builder finished a house and looked on it with pride. The house was square, level and plumb. All the mechanical systems were run for optimum efficiency. Fast forward 50 years and you walk into the basement and find octopuses of electrical, low voltage wiring, plumbing and HVAC…it’s a horrid mess of fix upon fix. There is no way to make it pretty again. Sometimes, it needs to be blown up, torn out and rebuilt from scratch. That’s what the nations’ hours-of-service laws are like for truckers. It’s time to go back to the drawing board. On June 7th, a tragic crash occurred in New Jersey that has fanned the flames of an already raging fire regarding hours-of-service (HOS) and driver fatigue. The driver of a semi-tractor trailer combination crashed into the back of a limousine, killing one celebrity comedian and critically injuring another. The trucker has been accused of being fatigued, but the investigation has shown he was within the HOS laws. The question is, what was he doing prior to going on-duty? There’s an old adage that when a train hits a truck, the train wins. When a truck hits a car, the truck wins. Winning is the most uncompassionate word. When people die, everybody loses. That’s just the physics of larger and heavier objects crashing into smaller and lighter ones. In a perfect world, this would never happen. Unfortunately, it’s an imperfect world and tragedy strikes. Crashes like these do not absolve government of doing the right thing by regulating the trucking industry. Conversely, it does not empower government to over-regulate with kneejerk reactions. The value of life should never be compared based on the occupation of victims. The families of celebrities killed in truck crashes grieve just as hard as the families of highway workers, state troopers and “regular” people who lose loved ones in truck crashes. Death plays no favorites and will claim us all one day. It’s unfortunate that when a celebrity is involved, the political nature of driver fatigue is somehow artificially amplified, as if driver fatigue was not an issue prior to it. The fact is driver fatigue has been on the radar screen of the industry and the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) for many years. Props should go to the FMCSA for attempting to find solutions to reduce highway deaths due to driver fatigue. Recent rulings however proved only to create economic harm to the carrier industry and did little to reduce the number of highway deaths. To that end, the United States Senate this week will have hearings this coming week on the Collins amendment which would roll back some of these restrictions. This regulatory regression is heralded by all sects of the carrier industry, but it could now be in jeopardy because the New Jersey crash. The rollback would be another step climbed in the ascent of profitable trucking, but instead it’s become a political soapbox. A soapbox mostly for those politicians representing industries competing with highway travel. It’s become a marketing strategy for those like the law firm which recently took out a full-page ad in Maxim magazine demonizing truckers by referring to them as “serial killers”. The harsh reality is that no matter how much or how little regulation there is, tragic crashes will occur due to driver fatigue…in trucks and cars. There is always a way to cheat and find a way around the law. Ask any police officer. You can spend 30 years running radar in the same place and still get speeders. Compliance may improve, but violations will continue. The forgotten goal is balance. A student of the industry (and this topic) understands the robust complexities of trucking. Certain HOS regulations may be good for one part of the industry, but not others. There are divergent operational distinctions between truckload, LTL, fleet operations, owner-operators, specialized transportation and short-haul drivers. It’s not apples to apples. Apparently as the nation’s social policies slowly descend into egalitarianism, truck law is not exempt. For years, the federal government has been trying to create a static, one-size fits all HOS rule for the industry. It’s a noble effort, but it’s a waste of time. Instead they have created a hodge-podge of difficult rules excepted by exception after exception. The nation is not safer for it, and the economy is not prosperous for it either. It doesn’t work. The drivers are still falling asleep. The trucks are still crashing. People are still dying. It’s high time to wipe clean the HOS slate and start from scratch. A dynamic industry needs dynamic rules with dynamic enforcement strategies. Different trucking disciplines deserve what works best for their operational trade.
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