By Eric Kulisch
The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration on Thursday issued its final anti-fatigue rule governing how much time commercial truck drivers can spend behind the wheel before getting rest.
The hours-of-service rulemaking had been highly anticipated for months. Within the trucking industry and its customer base there was almost universal consensus that the final outcome was a done deal: Rollback of the daily cap on driving time as well as a reduction in weekly limits.
But if one looked closely at how the Obama administration has operated in these types of situations you could see this decision coming. In the end, FMCSA backed off its attempt to shorten the current 11-hour daily drive time to 10 hours.
That's not to say there won't be any pain for the motor carrier industry and shippers, just that it won't be nearly as bad as everyone anticipated.
The rulemaking, released right before everyone left town for the holidays, also reduced to 70 from 82 the number of maximum hours a driver can work within a seven-day period by requiring two consecutive night's sleep as part of the 34-hour rest period before a new weekly work schedule can start.
As I've been writing in this column in recent weeks
, the Obama administration is trying to please two constituencies. On the one hand, it has its progressive base that expects the government to implement more environmental, safety, and consumer protections. At the same time, it is trying to show the business community that it doesn't want to stifle economic activity with excessive regulation, especially at a time when the country is still suffering a hangover from the recession.
A year ago, President Obama ordered federal departments and agencies to review all regulations and get rid of those that were redundant, outdated or ineffective.
The vehicle for splitting the difference and adjusting rulemakings to have the least economic impact is the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, which is tucked away in the Office of Management and Budget and little known to the public.
It's job is to put a magnifying lens on the cost-benefit equation for each rule and determine if the public gains are worth the cost. In the end, it also has the power to tweak rules to fit the political goals of the president.
During the past couple of years, OIRA has forced agencies to adjust many draft rulemakings. The Environmental Protection Agency has had to modify more rules than others. In August, for example, President Obama asked EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson to withdraw a draft rule to tighten standards for ozone, which heavily contributes to smog. The EPA estimates that up to 12,000 lives can be saved each year by implementing the new standards.
Lobbyists from the American Trucking Associations have been among the most frequent visitors to OIRA's offices, getting in a last word on many issues.
The fact there were not sweeping changes to "hours-of-service," therefore, was fairly predictable. The White House was obviously swayed by arguments that reducing allowable driving time would require companies to invest heavily in more trucks and employees, and create more congestion, to move the same amount of freight at the same time fatal-accident levels have been decreasing. Opponents of the rule say that most accidents are caused by factors other than fatigue.
Many analysts previously said they expected a 5 to 7 percent, or more, drop in productivity from recent, or pending, changes to safety rules such as hours-of-service.
But Benjamin Hartford, analyst at Baird Equity Research, estimated that the overall reduction in industry capacity from the FMCSA rule would only be 1 to 2 percent. That's because there is a limited number of drivers that run full tilt for more than 70 hours per week anyway. Carriers will have to make incremental, rather than wholesale, adjustments to their operations, he said in a client note.