The top U.S. agency responsible for investigating transportation accidents has warned that the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s (FMCSA) proposed changes to hours-of-service (HOS) regulations have the potential to increase the risk of fatigue-related crashes.
In comments submitted to the FMCSA on October 3, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) contends that the amendments to the regulation being considered would actually weaken aspects of the HOS rules.
“Although the FMCSA has provided support that the individual changes to the regulations will increase flexibility, the agency has presented no evidence that the proposed changes will improve highway safety,” wrote NTSB Chairman Robert Sumwalt. “Further, the agency has not evaluated the potential combined effects of relaxing multiple aspects of the regulations simultaneously.”
The flexibility provided within the FMCSA’s proposal has been welcomed for the most part by much of the trucking industry, particularly major trucking associations and large carriers, although concern has been raised that the rules increase the potential for driver abuse and coercion by employers and shippers.
But Sumwalt pointed out that this new flexibility would open the door to more driving time and shorter periods required in the sleeper berth. “These proposed provisions have the potential to increase driver wake time, reduce sleep time, and foster inconsistent schedules, thereby increasing the risk of fatigue-related crashes.”
The FMCSA has received roughly 7,000 comments on the proposed changes. Those submitted by the NTSB, whose five board members are nominated by the President, may so far carry the most clout.
Gary Halbert, a former general counsel to the NTSB and now a partner at the law firm Holland & Knight, said that having worked both inside and outside the agency, “it’s been my perception that when it comes to safety recommendations, the NTSB is able to punch above its class,” Halbert told FreightWaves. “Those recommendations carry a lot of influence on Capitol Hill, and because of that, it’s treated very seriously by the regulatory rulemaking agencies.”
Halbert explained that because the agency does not promote a particular agenda – it doesn’t conduct cost-benefit analyses or get involved in U.S. global competitiveness issues, for example – it’s perceived as an “honest broker” on transportation safety.
“That gives the NTSB great persuasive power,” he said. “I think the success rate of the NTSB in promoting their safety recommendations historically is around 80% – that’s a meaningful statistic in my mind.”
The NTSB has been keeping step with trucking HOS regulations as they have evolved over the years. In 2003, then-Chairman Ellen Engleman called the revised changes issued at that time “an important step toward addressing fatigue on our nation’s highways.”
However, in comments submitted last year on the FMCSA’s Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking – the precursor to the current proposal – the NTSB said there was “no science-based evidence” of improved safety in the proposal. It also rejected the rationale to “weaken” the regulations because it is easier to enforce them now that electronic logging devices (ELDs) are required.
“For more than 25 years, the NTSB has supported implementing ELDs and believes that ELDs paired with science-based HOS regulations will reduce the number of fatigue-related crashes,” Sumwalt asserted. “The NTSB believes that a science-based safety evaluation of the current HOS regulations combined with the implementation of ELDs is needed before changes are made to the rules.”