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New HOS rules not making for good team play: Truckers

TORONTO -- New hours-of-service rules in the US aren't having too much of an impact on most drivers, but team drivers are already feeling the squeeze.

For solo drivers, The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration's amendment taking away flexibility in the sleeper-birth option is causing a few scheduling conflicts, and perhaps rearranging a few sleep patterns, but it's some team drivers that may have to overhaul their routines. Can they cope with 10 hours in the bunk of a moving truck? Or 10 straight hours at the wheel afterwards?

For the 13 driver teams at Barrie, Ont.'s First Transport, the new HOS rules will have little effect on their operations. "It hasn't affected us because most of our teams have always run 10 hours on-10 hours off anyway," says Bill Fisher, First Transport's operations manager.

But for teams that have traditionally run five hours on, five off -- like those with Challenger Motor Freight -- the change does pose some challenges.

Team drivers miss the wiggle room
previous HOS rules provided

The rules, which took effect in October, say 10 hours off are required before you can drive again, but they will let you split the time into two blocks. It used to be that drivers could split their sleeper time into two short blocks -- say five and five -- as long one period was at least two hours long. Now there's no wiggle room, as one block in the sleeper has to be at least eight consecutive hours.

"It's definitely going to affect team drivers with their driving patterns," says John Ahearn, Challenger's operations supervisor. "These guys are used to 5/5 and with the new rules it's going to be either 8/2 or 10/10. We're getting feedback from the teams that it could be almost unsafe because they're not used to driving a straight 10 hours. These guys have driven team for a number of years and have gotten used to 5/5."

Ahearn says Challenger's safety department is currently interviewing its team drivers to see how they're adjusting.

One of the less obvious, but indeed serious problems, will be the interruption of the sleeper interval. Gary Ebelhart is a long-time team driver with a chemical producer based in Amherstburg, Ont. "What happens when we're called into a scale, or for a customs inspection?" he asks.

He hauls hazmat, so the level of scrutiny is high, and company policy demands that both drivers participate in the unloading of the tanker. They have no choice but to log all the on-duty time -- including inspections -- as it happens.

"If we're called into customs for a secondary inspection, they want the two of us at the desk," he says. "If my partner was six or seven hours into a sleeper shift, and then goes on-duty for something, he's going to have to start all over again to get his 10 hours off before he can drive again. That's really going to screw things up."

In terms of team drivers migrating away from sharing the cab and going solo because of the new rules, Ahearn says it's too soon to tell.

"I'm sure most will give it a try, but if they find that they're not getting the proper sleep or they don't feel safe driving the eight to 10 hour stretches, then yes, I could see teams breaking up and guys just running single."

Whether drivers, both single and team, adjust to the new rules remains to be seen as it's still early days. But it certainly has its detractors, especially among the Teamsters. The union is filing a few different petitions against various aspects of the new rules -- including a separate petition addressing team drivers and the sleeper berth modification, which, it feels, "forces a team driver to "rest" for eight hours in a moving truck, with engine noise, vibration, and other distractions around them.

"The only thing this will do is force team drivers to drive for eight hours straight, causing drivers to be more fatigued," says union chief Jim Hoffa.

The Teamster's petition, coupled with several others already filed by the same safety advocates that forced the change to the first rule, could send this rule into the tank, too. Better not get to used to this one. It might not be around that long.

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