Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Are New Safety Rules For Truckers Backfiring?

I have noticed recently that truckers are driving differently on the interstate.  They appear to be changing lanes more and spending more time in the speed lane.  I would not describe this behavior as “aggressive” driving, because it is not dangerous, just different.  I do want to be clear that I am not complaining about anyone’s driving. The great majority of truckers are excellent drivers, obviously much better than the average person on the road.

However, if I am correct in this observation, something has indeed changed.  What could cause this? My guess is the change in behavior is related to the new Hours-of-Service (HOS) regulations. These are “regulations issued by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) governing the working hours of anyone operating a commercial motor vehicle. These rules limit the number of daily and weekly hours spent driving and working, and regulate the minimum amount of time drivers must spend resting between driving shifts.” (Wikipedia) 

There has been a loss of productivity due to the regulations, and there has also been a loss of income for many drivers.  It makes sense that truckers would try to be more productive when they are on the road.  This would translate into driving at higher (still legal) speeds and trying to get around traffic that is moving too slowly.

Again, I want to emphasize, this is totally logical behavior.  I would be doing the exact same thing if I was sitting in the truck driver’s seat.  It makes complete sense. 

The government instituted the HOS laws to make the roads safer by providing more rest for drivers, however, if truckers modifying their driving habits to compensate for the lost time, the roads may become more dangerous. If this happens, it would be a classic case of the “law of unintended consequences.” This economic law states that intervention (especially by government) in a complex system, creates unexpected and often undesirable outcomes.  The HOS instance would be considered a “perverse effect” that would cause actions opposite to what was intended (Princeton.edu) if my theory holds true.

Todd Spencer, executive vice president of the Owner Operator Independent Drivers Association, pointed out in a recent article that keeping trucks off the road in the middle of the night increases truck traffic during the day resulting in more interactions and more accidents.  He also says the law does not give truckers the flexibility to avoid congested urban areas during peak traffic.  Others have speculated that truckers may also drive faster to make their destination before they run out of road time.

So maybe I am just noticing heavier truck traffic and the different interactions that result from this.  Regardless, there is the potential for more accidents under the new, “safer” rules.

I don’t know if the HOS mandate will turn out this way, but somebody better be keeping score.  Accident statistics needed to be tracked constantly from July 2013 (starting date).  It also will be interesting to see the statistics on the time of day accidents are occurring.   If accidents increase during the day or in heavier traffic situations, then something truly unintended has occurred.

If accidents do increase as a result of the HOS mandate, of course truckers would be blamed and there would be clamors to tighten the law, not loosen it.  Consider the case of the Wal-Mart driver whose truck collided with a van severely injuring actor/comedian Tracy Morgan and resulting in one death. Reports say traffic was backed up on the highway and the driver failed to stop.

It appears the driver was just within his legal hours of service at the time of the accident.  However, police say he had been awake for more than 24 hours before the crash.  In addition, preliminary data shows the truck was traveling 65 mph in a 45 mph zone.

Based on the preliminary description of the events surrounding the accident, anti-trucking safety groups are clamoring for even tighter hours of service restrictions.  Some claim the trucking industry is “out of control.” 

This case has received great attention because a celebrity was involved, but it is a poor argument for stricter regulations.  You can limit the time a driver is on the road, but you can’t dictate what he does off the road.  If he was awake for more than 24 hours straight, he should not have been riding a bicycle let alone driving a big rig.  Also, going 20 miles over the speed limit and plowing into stopped traffic is not going to be fixed by more rest.  There is clearly something else going on here which should be revealed during the trial.

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