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Why the 14-hour clock rule is the most dangerous of them all

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If we start with the premise that a commercial driver can be both 100% compliant with hours-of-service (HoS) regulations and sound asleep at the wheel simultaneously, then we have a starting point for healthy debate as requested by OOIDA in its recent petition to the FMCSA.

To suggest otherwise and imply compliance to unsafe regulations equates to safety is misleading at best, and downright dangerous at worst.

Why so? Well, we ask drivers to be safe, yet we don’t equip them with either the opportunity or skills to do so, and by skills, I mean those required to deal with constant sleep deprivation caused by inconsistent trip start/end times and those impossible 10-hour breaks that occur after sunrise. Studies show that after sunrise, when the body clock’s sleep/wake cycle is triggered by blue light, a 10-hour break will yield at best 4 to 4.5 hours of sleep and poor-quality sleep at that.

Humans are nocturnal sleepers and have evolved to wake with the sun and sleep in the dark, so anytime a driver tries to sleep in the day they can be both sleepy but not fatigued and fatigued but not sleepy. It’s nothing short of an emotional roller-coaster with the latter the most problematic, and why drivers often say they feel wide awake and ready to roll during the day but can’t because they have to wait until 10 hours has elapsed. When it does, they often feel tired because of the way our alertness circadian rhythm cycles up and down throughout the day. Adding flexibility to the way rest breaks are constructed over a 24-hour period is key, and why an exemption to the 14-hour clock rule with a clock-stopping break is not only a great idea, it has to be considered if improved road safety is truly a desired outcome.

Why it Matters

The OOIDA petition suggests that after allowing for a 10-hour continuous break, a 17-hour workday can commence which means, on occasions, a new workday starts 27 hours, or 3 hours later, than the prior day (or what’s known as a forward rotating schedule). This is much better than the 1934 HOS 10-on/8-off rule that allowed a new workday to start 6 hours earlier every 24 hours, or what’s known as a backwards rotating 6-hour schedule. Schedules that start earlier each day truncate sleep rapidly which cause drivers to suffer from jet-lag on a daily basis; the equivalent of flying east from Dallas to London and then attempting to fall asleep immediately upon landing – it’s almost biologically impossible to achieve without some form of pharmacological assistance. The OOIDA petition is the opposite in that it occasionally creates a forward rotating 3-hour schedule which is more in line with the bio-compatible schedules the FMCSA is attempting to achieve.

My only caveat with any exemption request or petition is that where possible, drivers must try and stick to a 24-hour routine of work and rest as often as possible, so that sleep occurs at the same time every day (along with the timing of light to the eyes).

 We Should Be Regulating Sleep

The bottom line is we’re regulating the wrong thing … we should be regulating sleep and not hours worked since sleep drives human performance far more than skills, experience and training. The idea that by regulating hours worked we somehow magically ensure drivers are well-rested for the next shift is completely flawed. Even mandating a 10-hour continuous break is questionable since most humans only need 6 to 7.5 hrs of sleep per day to be fully functional, so exemptions to the 14-hour clock rule and allowing off-duty rest/sleep time to be spread across the 24-hour day makes complete sense.

Hours of Sleep

In 2006, a consortium of truckload carriers applied for an exemption to parts of 49CFR 395 – it was called “Hours of Sleep” for a very good reason. The exemption requested the 24-hour day be defined as 6 a.m. to 6 a.m. rather than the ludicrous 12 a.m. to 12 a.m. For over-the-road drivers running on the 70-hour/8-day rule, getting back hours from the 8th day prior at midnight is arguable the worst time to start a workday. The exemption also asked for flexibility with the 14-hour clock rule and 34-hour restart provision, and in doing so, would allow a driver to construct the 11 hours driving and 10 hours off-duty however they wanted (with the exception that 6 of the 10 hours had to be continuous), essentially allowing them to drive when they’re awake and sleep when they’re tired (just like with paper logs). This meant they could drive 3 hours, sleep 1.5 hours, drive 6 hours, sleep 3 hours and so on, but at the end of the day they would record no more than 11 hours driving and no less than 10 hours off-duty every 24 hours.

Sounds logical doesn't it? According the FMCSA at the time, it would not allow the exemption until, “every fleet had electronic logs and the playing field was leveled.” LTL carriers also objected to truckload carriers getting any sort of advantage and the project eventually got voted down by the ATA Hours of Service sub-committee.

It’s flexibility that drives safety outcomes, not prescriptive regulations based on a one-size-fits-all model (where only a small percentage of drivers fit). Flexibility widens the safety aperture and catches more drivers in the safety net as it caters for individual driver sleep personalities and work preference.

Making regulations economically affordable is a well-proven method for increased compliance and improved road safety, that’s why the hours-of-sleep project was so attractive to carriers because the increased flexibility with hours-of-service compliance added another hour on rolling time per day which was equivalent to a 11% rate increase, a 11% increase in driver pay and 15% reduction in driver turnover on top of a projected 22% reduction in preventable accidents.

Now that the ELD Mandate is in place, now just may be the right time to apply for exemptions to rules like the 14-hour clock and introduce performance-based safety programs that reward drivers for good performance with economically affordable regulations rather than impose prescriptive regulations for the lowest common denominator. Wouldn’t it be better to reward the 90% of fleets and drivers for doing the right thing than try to find the 10% who consistently underperform no matter what?

Unlike in 2006 when the Hours of Sleep project began, we now have incredibly accurate machine learning technology that can predict sleep and model driver risk down to the minute, so why not let fleets who want to not only meet regulatory standards but exceed them by doing far more than required apply for exemptions based on performance.

Still Not Convinced

If you’ve gotten this far and you’re still not convinced, ask yourself how do we achieve the goals of the HOS regulation as outlined by the FMCSA, which state, “As the driver of a large, heavy truck, you have a lot of responsibility as you drive down the road. The biggest concern is safety. That brings us to the main reason for the hours-of-service regulations – to keep fatigued drivers off the public roadways. These regulations put limits in place for when and how long you may drive, to ensure that you stay awake and alert while driving, and on a continuing basis to help reduce the possibility of driver fatigue.”

Drivers aren’t robots and one size doesn't fit all, so in the absence of flexibility, wide-awake drivers will be attempting to sleep in rest-stops on 10-hour breaks during the day, and tired drivers will be always on the road and on occasions sound asleep at the wheel … but they’ll be compliant.

It’s as if the current regulations are achieving the exact opposite of what they set out to do, but then that’s what happens when you live on an island surrounded by reality, aka Washington D.C., which also ranks as the worst city for driver wait times according to a recent FreightWaves study.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m supportive of most HOS changes since 2004 to better align a driver’s workday with the 24-hour rising and setting of the sun (11 hours driving, 3 non-driving and 10 hours off), but it’s the 14-hour clock rule that’s the most egregious and why the OOIDA petition and KeepTruckin petitions are so important.

Since drivers are paid by the mile and have to fit in 11 hours of driving into a 14-hour window, the prescriptive and inflexible 14-hour clock rule often robs drivers of the incentive to recharge their sleep battery by stopping when they are tired. It’s illogical to think that a nap can’t extend your workday, after all, it does in every other modern workplace.

Paper Logs vs Electronic Logs

Having been an over-the-road driver and used both electronic logs and paper logs, I knew that log compliance had nothing to do with my safety, so in 2006 I began a 5-year study of accident rates of fleets using both types of logs to prove my theory, i.e. that being compliant to unsafe regulations won’t make you a safer driver, in fact it will make you worse.  

Using a publicly available data set in 2007 from the FMCSA Safer system recording DOT-recordable accidents, I studied 30 truckload carriers who ran close to 12 billion miles annually and in 2007 observed that fleets on paper logs recorded a 30% lower DOT recordable accident rate. Fast forward to 2011 and the fleets that had converted from paper to electronic logs had almost the same DOT-recordable accident rate. In more recent years I’ve studied thousands of accidents from fleets with electronic logs – the findings are the same; drivers still fall asleep at the wheel even though they’re compliant with HOS regulations. It’s not the regulations that drive safety, it’s allowing drivers to listen to their bodies and sleep when they’re tired and drive when they’re awake.

These studies also highlight one of the biggest issues drivers have with the ELD Mandate – it removes the flexibility that paper logs afforded them, and by that I mean not doing more hours … just doing them differently based on individual work and sleep preference.

The key is to make work start/end times consistent so that we satisfy the body’s drive for “anchor sleep” i.e. sleep in the same place and at the same time every day. I’m all for more flexibility in how drivers rest and meet their anchor sleep requirements, and in particular being able to stop the 14-hour clock in the interests of improved productivity and safety (which aren’t mutually exclusive).

 Dean Croke is chief analytics officer for FreightWaves. Prior to joining FreightWaves Dean was vice president of data products at Spireon where he headed up the development of new high-frequency telematics data products. He also ran Lancer’s long-haul truck insurance business after spending many years as vice president of Omnitracs Analytics, where he developed data science technologies including machine learning, complex business rules engines and data analytics for transportation companies. Dean was one of the original founders of FleetRisk Advisors and has 35 years of experience in data analytics, transportation, supply chain management, mining and insurance risk management. He still holds a CDL and has driven more than 2 million miles.

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