FMCSA’s flexible sleeper pilot could be a game-changer for helping drivers rest

An FMCSA pilot program will study whether allowing drivers to pull over and rest when they are tired - in essence splitting their driving hours - has any negative effect on safety. ( Photo: Shutterstock )

An FMCSA pilot program will study whether allowing drivers to pull over and rest when they are tired - in essence splitting their driving hours - has any negative effect on safety. (Photo: Shutterstock)

For years, truckload carriers have petitioned the federal government to relax hours-of-service regulations so that truck drivers would have more flexibility in choosing when and how they rest. Under the current federal regulatory scheme, when a driver goes on duty, a 14-hour clock starts and cannot be extended by going off-duty. Imagine a truck driver bringing a load into Chicago during rush hour. He’s been driving all day and has 3 on-duty hours left. Under the current rules, the driver would not be allowed to avoid rush hour congestion by pulling over and sleeping for three hours, and then resuming his route.

Imagine a second scenario: a truck driver who has been on the road for 8 hours and is three hours away from his destination but has been on the clock for 10 hours. He suddenly feels fatigued, and his body tells him that he needs to sleep. Under current rules, the driver could not sleep for two hours and then drive the three additional hours to his destination, because that would violate the 14-hour time limit. The regulations governing hours-of-service as they stand today would force the driver to ignore his physiological needs and get to his destination before he had the chance to rest. That’s why many in the trucking industry think that flexible sleeping will make driving safer—finally truckers will be allowed to ‘sleep when you’re sleepy.’

“We’ve long wanted the flexibility to break up the 14-hour clock,” says David Heller, vice president of government affairs at the Truckload Carriers Association.

Health and safety concerns, as well as a lack of reliable documentation for drivers’ schedules, have prevented any real progress on this issue thus far. But with the advent of the electronic logging device (ELD) mandate in December, carriers are looking forward to collecting a wealth of unfalsifiable data from their drivers and trucks.

“The ELDs will paint a very accurate picture of how the drivers are taking their rest,” says Heller.

Now the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) is recruiting at least 50 and up to 200 drivers to participate in its Flexible Sleeper Berth Pilot Program. The FMCSA has partnered with the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute and subcontractors from Washington State University and SmartDrive to conduct the study, which will evaluate the safety and feasibility of splitting truck drivers’ sleeper berth status time. Using ELDs, onboard video monitoring systems provided by SmartDrive, and wrist-mounted sleep activity monitors, the FMCSA will collect data on the drivers’ quality of sleep as well as physiological indicators of fatigue to make sure that drivers can get the rest they need on a split-sleep schedule. Data from each driver will be collected for 90 days.

Carriers anticipate big gains in efficiency and productivity by allowing drivers to rest during times of peak congestion, instead of forcing them to burn precious hours-of-service sitting in traffic.

“It’s a game-changer to say the least, and of paramount importance for the long-haul sector of the industry,” said Heller. “It’s a great step in the right direction.”

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