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Split-duty rest break: A lever for boosting capacity?

FMCSA pilot project to assess driver efficiency but raises safety concerns

14-hour window pause could take pressure off drivers. (Photo: Jim Allen/FreightWaves)

As the coronavirus pandemic injects more instability into the trucking sector, a push by federal regulators to make hours-of-service (HOS) rules more flexible could also make drivers’ schedules more predictable while boosting capacity.

Last month the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) published a proposed Split Duty Pilot Program whereby participating truck drivers would have the option to pause their 14-hour driving window with an off-duty period lasting between 30 minutes and three hours.

The change had been considered as part of four other HOS changes rolled out in May that go into effect on Sept. 29. FMCSA held off including the proposal — originally filed as a petition by the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association (OOIDA) in 2018 — due in part to potential “unintended consequences” related to driver detention time that the agency said had not been adequately evaluated.

Safety concerns raised

Of comments FMCSA received on the split-duty proposal, approximately 280 supported it and 150 opposed. The American Trucking Associations generally supported the change while pointing out certain safety concerns among some members.

Many who outright opposed the idea saw it as essentially lengthening a driver’s day from 14 to 17 hours, which they warned would increase the risk of a crash.

“This is patently unfair to the driver; would expose drivers to driving much later in their workday; and would jeopardize highway safety,” wrote Brett Sant, senior vice president for safety and risk management at Knight-Swift Transportation [NYSE: KNX]. “You are proposing creating significant additional risk (in terms of vehicle miles traveled at the most vulnerable times in the driver’s daily work shift — after the 14th hour of duty) to accommodate a rather small percentage of drivers affected by the current and more rigid 14-hour limit.”

Billerica, Massachusetts-based carrier Boyle Transportation cautioned in comments submitted last year that if the workday were extended to 17 hours, “industry participants will quickly take advantage of such an opportunity whether or not a driver obtains rest and more drivers will drive the maximum driving time of 11 hours. Such a provision would lend itself to abuse and a marked increase in fatigued driving and resulting crashes.”

More capacity, flexibility

But FMCSA has asserted that such abuses — and the consequences associated with them — will be measured and assessed within the pilot program.

Average portion (in hours) of 14-hour window/on-duty clock that is actual driving time, Oct. 2017-Sept. 2020
Note: 7.05 = Average driving time on Sept. 8, 2020. Source: SONAR

“Through the pilot program the Agency could gather data and information concerning real-world actions and decisions among drivers, employers, and shippers and receivers to reach a common understanding of how to give drivers more opportunities for rest and increased efficiency,” FMCSA stated. It pointed to comments filed in response to the original proposal contending that the trucking industry could tap into additional capacity by allowing time spent being loaded or unloaded to be used as off-duty time.

“Drivers, once they reach a shipper, many times are not allowed to help with the loading and unloading,” Donna England, VP of safety and member services for the Tennessee Trucking Association, told FreightWaves.

“So if they can do that in off-duty time and split up the 14-hour window, once they’re loaded and get rolling, they can get to where they need to go before that duty time ends, which does allow for greater capacity.”

Comments submitted by OOIDA last year and based on a survey of its members found that 58% of respondents would not complete more trips due to this provision; 42% responded that they would. “For those that said they would complete more trips, they expected an average of 1.60 more trips would be completed during a given week,” the association stated.

In acknowledging concerns about shippers and receivers using the proposal to exploit drivers, OOIDA said that, rather than taking away the added flexibility, “the Agency and the industry should work to address the underlying issues with detention time.”

The National Tank Truck Carriers commented that, by providing more flexibility in driver schedules, the split-duty proposal “promotes more productive and efficient use of on-duty time while maintaining an equivalent, if not higher, level of safety.”

Data collection

The 200 to 400 drivers expected to participate in the program will drive an instrumented vehicle for up to 90 days, according to FMCSA. Participants will also receive a study-provided smartphone installed with a variety of data collection applications and a “wrist actigraphy device.” Drivers will also be provided with an approved electronic logging device (ELD) application if their truck is not already equipped with an ELD.

FMCSA said the way data will be collected for the program is subject to change based on an analyst review and comments received. Comments are due Nov. 2.

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John Gallagher

Based in Washington, D.C., John specializes in regulation and legislation affecting all sectors of freight transportation. He has covered rail, trucking and maritime issues since 1993 for a variety of publications based in the U.S. and the U.K. John began business reporting in 1993 at Broadcasting & Cable Magazine. He graduated from Florida State University majoring in English and business.