Hours of Service Debate Goes into Overtime

Hours of Service Debate Goes into Overtime

There’s an inescapable truth about business logistics: Everything is political. Since logistics by its very nature involves the movement of virtually every good and service sold in the United States (not to mention the world), a lot of money is tied up in various constituencies, with every stakeholder trying to win as big a chunk of that cash as possible. I think we all understand that, and assume that navigating around the various, highly politicized issues is just a cost of doing business.

Even so, it still amazes me how long the debate over the Hours of Service rules for long-haul truck drivers has dragged out. With a few rare instances of general consent, the regulations have been under some state of challenge or revision for most of the 70-plus years since they were originally legislated. The basic reason why these rules will probably always be challenged – at least, for as long as the U.S. economy relies as heavily as it does on trucking – is that the two main sides to the issue are as diametrically opposed as day is to night.

On one side, you have the truck drivers, which is to say, you have the unions who represent the truck drivers as well as the politicians who depend heavily on union members for their votes. The International Brotherhood of Teamsters, for instance, brings in close to $200 million, much of it from dues paid by its 1.3 million members, most of whom are truck drivers. What do the Teamsters have to gain by a reduction in the Hours of Service their drivers can be on the road? More dues-paying members. It’s a simple formula: The fewer the number of hours a driver can spend behind the wheel, the more drivers that will be needed to make up the difference.

Significantly, the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, a group that represents 150,000 non-union truck drivers, prefers that the existing HOS rules be left alone.

Certainly, highway safety is an important issue in the Hours of Service debate, but it’s by no means the most important issue. As in all things political, just follow the money.

So on the other side of the debate, you have the trucking companies and the shippers, the companies who have freight to move and need to hire trucks and drivers to move it. Now, we know that U.S. companies spent roughly $600 billion in 2010 on motor carriers, a year that saw trucking costs rise by more than 9% (according to the State of Logistics Report from the Council of Supply Chain Management Professionals). The business argument against reducing the Hours of Service is that it would cause those logistics costs to rise. President Obama said as much when he included the changes to the HOS rules in a list of pending regulatory issues that would cost businesses at least $1 billion a year (of course, the argument is that those costs would eventually be offset).

Businesses point to the reduction in highway fatalities since the current rule was implemented a few years ago as evidence that the highways are as safe as they need to be, and ask why should they face the prospects of reduced carrier productivity when the economy is still stumbling along? Of course, even during boom years, businesses are reticent to take on additional regulatory burdens. In any event, the American Trucking Associations, which represents motor carriers and shippers, is very much opposed to any changes to the HOS rules.

I mention all of this merely as a preamble to the news that the Federal Motor Carriers Safety Administration (FMCSA) missed its October 28 deadline to publish the proposed new HOS regulations, saying that it would provide an update by November 28 (unless of course it requests another extension). What this all means is difficult to say, but in terms of pure politics, it’s easy to figure out. Those who helped return control of the House of Representatives to the Republicans in 2010 are opposed to the new HOS rules, whereas those who helped elect President Obama, who appointed current FMCSA head Anne Ferro, want the new rules to pass.

What we have here, then, is an immovable force meeting an irresistible object, and no matter what happens once the FMCSA finally issues its new rules, expect loud and vigorous challenges to it. That’s a political certainty.

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