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CPBJ Extra Blog

Mandated reform: truckers under the gun

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The next round of truck driver safety mandates takes effect May 21, when all driver medical exams must be done by an examiner who is certified by a new national registry.

Drivers have long been required to pass a medical exam that includes the heart, lungs, muscular functioning, vision and hearing, among other things. They have to pass the exam at least every two years to keep their medical certificate.

In the past, examiners came from all over the medical field, including doctors, osteopaths, chiropractors, physician assistants and advance practice nurses. The new rules standardize the process through the National Registry of Certified Medical Examiners.

But there are concerns that not enough trained examiners will be ready by the deadline. The Pennsylvania Medical Society is offering online training to help local examiners become qualified.

The new mandates are just the latest from the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration as it seeks to reduce trucking accidents and fatalities. According to the FMCSA, more than 750 people die and 20,000 more are injured each year due directly to fatigued commercial vehicle drivers.

Under the Obama administration, the FMCSA has moved aggressively to regulate drivers' hours of service and rest rules. The latest changes were put into place last summer and state that drivers of commercial motor vehicles can be on the road for a maximum of 11 hours in a 14-hour workday, following 10 consecutive hours off duty.

They must take a minimum 30-minute break during the first eight hours of a shift. Their maximum average workweek is capped at 70 hours, down from the previous limit of 82 hours.

Predictably, drivers are not at all happy with the changes. Drivers are a rebellious sort to begin with (check out the 1978 movie "Convoy" sometime), and rules handed down by Washington, D.C., bureaucrats are not sitting well. Plus, it is taking money out of their pockets.

The trucking industry has long been a self-regulating industry (for the most part) out of necessity. I remember my dad getting a load of steel bound for New York City and a piece of paper with an address on it. That was pretty much it. When he got tired, he would pull over and put his head on the steering wheel for about 10 minutes before rising and driving off.

The hours spent trucking to new territories hundreds of miles from home required truckers to develop informal means to rely on each other. Ironically, the very technology that aided their community (such as the citizens band radio) eventually reined in the truckers.

These days, technology in the cab monitors the truck's every movement. Truckers can't get lost, veer off course or, in some cases, drive above a set speed limit.

Drivers must carefully plan routes around mandated down time. Many trucks are programmed to shut off after a certain amount of time on the road.

This struggle between the industry and the FMCSA is playing out amid tough financial struggles by many trucking companies. Trucking fleet failures more than doubled in the first quarter from a year earlier, according to a new report.

A total of 390 companies with 10,650 trucks were pushed off the road between January and March, compared with 195 carriers and 4,330 trucks in the first quarter of 2013, Avondale Partners analyst Donald Broughton told Transport Topics, a trucking industry newspaper.

The report gave an example of a negative spiral triggered by regulatory burdens, specifically for fleets that voluntarily adopted electronic logging devices in advance of a FMCSA mandate.

In layman's terms, the fleet is losing money because of fewer road miles. That is followed by drivers quitting because they are not getting the miles (and wages) they expected. So trucks sitting empty and employee turnover add to less revenue.

To be sure, the rough winter weather is also affecting the bottom line for trucking companies. But the ongoing regulation over the industry has to stop somewhere. Hopefully, in time for trucking to rebound.

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