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Over-Regulating the Roads: The Department of Transportation’s Hours of Service Rule


When it comes to regulating industry, public agencies usually perform careful cost-benefit analyses to formulate policy. For the most part, the federal government does a good job of balancing business interests, like financial interests and compliance issues, with the concerns of the public, such as safety and fairness.

For example, in response to the BP oil spill in the Gulf Coast, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management issued the Drilling Safety Rule which required oil companies to abide by certain requirements in the construction, maintenance, and usage of offshore oilrigs.  This rule was met with little resistance from industry because most of the features of the rule, like providing adequate training to rig personnel, were already common sense measures that most oil companies abided by.  Furthermore, any additional costs bore by industry seemed acceptable in light of the BP disaster. By standardizing these requirements across companies (and assuming companies will adequately comply), the federal government protected the public by reducing the likelihood that similar offshore drilling disasters will occur in the future.

However, despite the conscientious manner in which regulations are typically designed, sometimes the cost-benefit analysis on which the regulation is based is remarkably flawed. In particular, regulations may be crafted in a way that imposes tremendous costs on business while providing little or no tangible benefits to society at large. There are a variety of reasons why this happens. Perhaps an agency has a political or ideological motivation for designing a regulation a certain way.  Maybe an agency lacks a comprehensive understanding of a matter before proposing a regulation. Whatever the cause of this lopsided approach to regulations, it must be stopped.

This problem is made clear by serious flaws in the Department of Transportation’s Hours of Service Rule.

The Department of Transportation’s Hours of Service Rule was originally enacted with the noble cause of reducing big rig accidents by limiting the number of hours truck drivers can operate their vehicles per day, as studies suggested that accidents were more likely to occur when truck drivers felt fatigued from driving too many hours. While it is clear that there should be some limit on driving time, the Hours of Service Rules are simply overbearing.

The regulation actually ends up forcing truck drivers to follow certain sleeping habits. The key provision of the regulation states that a truck driver can drive a maximum of 11 hours only after 10 consecutive hours of being off duty. This places long haul drivers who would otherwise prefer to take multiple breaks to rest each day in a position where they need to sleep all at once. This may actually contribute to more fatigue for some drivers. Drivers should be allowed to complete their driving time without this unnecessary government interference.

The 11-hour limit provision was also not crafted to take into account aspects of different industries. The limit on drive time makes better sense for long haul drivers who have spent many days on the road and are exhausted. For a well-rested 9 to 5 factory worker whose job sometimes includes delivering lumber or concrete to a neighboring state, it seems foolish this driver should also be subject to the 11 hour limit. If this driver must make a trip that is 12 hours away, for example, he or she can only drive 11 hours on the first day and can be required to wait until the second day to complete the journey rather than traveling to the destination in a single day. This problem can be solved by offering some industries exemptions to the 11 hour limit.

In December 2010, the Department of Transportation proposed a rule to change the 11 hour per day limit to 10 hours because the agency felt it would further decrease fatigue related accidents.  Subsequently, industry objected to this change because it would have serious financial consequences for businesses. Namely, this change would have increased the amount of time it takes to deliver a load. In response, the agency could not provide any reliable empirical evidence that 10 hours would actually make a difference in safety. Luckily, the Department of Transportation backed off this shortsighted proposal.

The Department of Transportation’s Hours of Service Rule serves as an example of an agency that ignored balance in policy-making and embarked on an overzealous regulatory agenda. Certainly, reducing fatigue-related accidents is a worthwhile cause, but, as shown by the few suggestions here it can be done in a way that is less painful for industry.

As the old saying goes, all things are good in moderation. This is true of regulating industry, too.

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