Hours of Service Changes and Driver Fatigue: Pausing the 14-Hour HOS Clock
Laws regarding truck drivers and their hours of service were first established in the U.S. in 1938 by the now-defunct Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) to guard against driver fatigue. Since 1938 and before 2020, the HOS rules were changed just four times and only significantly in 1962 and 2003. However, the truck industry has long argued that the HOS rules are not practical, especially considering the mandated electronic logging devices.
What Is the FMCSA?
The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) is a division of the United States Department of Transportation and a relatively new organization that was formed in 2000. The FMCSA was established within the DOT as its own administration via the Motor Carrier Safety Improvement Act of 1999. The core goal of the agency is to prevent injuries and fatalities related to the use of commercial motor vehicles. Hours of service were originally governed by the ICC, but the organization lost much of its authority when the Motor Carrier Act of 1980 deregulated the trucking industry. Responsibilities eventually fell under the purview of the DOT, and in response to modern data concerning commercial vehicle accidents, the FMCSA was formed. It handles:
- Safety assistance
- Data and analysis
- Research and technology
- Commercial driver’s licenses
- Regulatory compliance and enforcement
- Coordination with international organizations
What Are the Hours of Service Regulations and How Do They Prevent Driver Fatigue?
In the trucking industry, hours of service refer to truck drivers’ working hours. HOS regulations govern the periods in which a trucker can operate a motor vehicle. These rules serve two core purposes. They deter companies from exploiting truckers and discourage truckers from making reckless decisions that are motivated by profits. Driver fatigue is, after all, the leading cause of commercial trucking accidents. Historically, the rules have been more akin to guidelines because violations were difficult to detect except in cases of gross negligence. With the introduction of electronic logging devices, many individuals, including trucking accident lawyers, have argued that the rigid HOS regulations are simply not realistic.
What Is the 14-Hour On-Duty Clock?
The HOS regulations allow professional drivers to operate commercial vehicles for up to 11 hours within a 14-hour period. Those 14 hours are consecutive and only available after a trucker has been off duty for a period of 10 or more hours in a row. While this is often thought of as a daily limit, the rule is not based on a 24-hour clock. While it may seem like a matter of semantics, the nuance becomes important when navigating some of the more complex elements of the law.
How Are HOS Enforced?
As far back as the late 1930s, U.S.-based truckers have been required to maintain a duty log. When pulled over at weigh stations and in other scenarios, police officers and other officials could inspect the log. Paper logs were rather easy to fudge, which often glossed over some of the issues with the HOS rules because truckers were able to self-regulate. However, in 2015, Congress passed an Electronic Logging Device (ELD) mandate, which required the installation of electronic logging devices in any commercial motor vehicle used for a purpose for which a Record of Duty Status (RODS) is legally required. These electronic RODS can be inspected just like paper logs but cannot be altered without some form of advanced tampering.
How Are the HOS Regulations Changing?
The changes to the HOS regulations go into effect on September 29, 2020, at 12:01 a.m. ET. Under the old rules, drivers had to split their 10-hour off-duty periods into eight- and two-hour blocks. The new rules allow for a period of at least seven hours and one that lasts a minimum of two hours, and those two rest periods must add up to at least 10 hours total. The smaller period — up to a maximum of three hours — does not count toward the 14-hour on-duty calculation. Other changes include:
- Relaxed short-haul RODS requirements
- HOS exceptions for adverse driving conditions
- Greater freedom regarding the mandated 30-minute shift break
How Do the Changes to the HOS Regulations Benefit Truck Drivers and Prevent Driver Fatigue?
Arguably, the biggest problem with the old HOS rules is that there was an inherent assumption of a traditional workday. In other words, it was based on the notion that a trucker would start working at 7 a.m., for instance; take a lunch break at noon; and get off the clock somewhere between 3:30 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. However, this is not the reality of the profession for many truck drivers. A common scenario is that a trucker will pick up a load at point A, transport that load to point B, have downtime at point B while waiting for a new load, pick up that new load at point B and transport it to point A. This was difficult to pull off with the old rules, but the new regulations allow for downtime up to three hours.
How Can the 14-Hour On-Duty Clock Be Paused?
Truckers can pause the on-duty clock by going off duty for at least two hours. As soon as the two-hour mark is reached, the clock can be paused and remain that way for up to three hours. While the break can be longer than three hours, any additional time will not be counted in the calculation of on-duty hours. The clock can be completely reset by going off duty for at least 10 consecutive hours.
Are the HOS Regulation Changes Concerning Driver Fatigue Optional?
In a sense, they are optional. The new rules also allow truckers to operate as they would under the old rules. This eliminates the impact on companies and truckers who were not disadvantaged by the old rules and do not want to alter their routines.
Are the HOS Regulations Changing Due to the COVID-19 Pandemic?
No. The FMCSA agreed to these changes in 2019 months before the coronavirus outbreak occurring. The COVID-19 pandemic may have accelerated the timeline, but that remains unclear. In addition, the FMCSA has provided HOS relief for truck drivers involved in COVID-19-related assistance efforts.
What Is the Short Haul Exemption?
Most truckers with commercial driver’s licenses must adhere to the HOS regulations, but there are exceptions. The most significant one is for short-haul truckers. This is notable for the 2020 HOS changes because what constitutes short-haul trucking has been expanded from 100 to 150 miles from the home base.
Driver Fatigue Caused Accidents: Local Representation in New Jersey
Truckers are essential to the American way of life and often unsung heroes in our efforts as a country to overcome the COVID-19 pandemic. But accidents do happen, and the stresses placed on truckers by the pandemic may make mistakes more prevalent. If you or a loved one have been involved in an accident with a commercial truck, Rebenack, Aronow & Mascolo, L.L.P., would like to help. At RAM Law, we focus on trucking accidents and can provide a trucking accident lawyer to represent you. We perform case reviews at no charge and without obligation. Schedule yours today by calling our New Brunswick or Somerville offices at (732) 394-1549 or contacting us online.