Exemption covering 20,000 drivers increases risk of fatigue, safety officials warn
Regulators have relaxed hours-of-service (HOS) rules for commercial motor vehicle (CMV) drivers working for most of the nation’s railroads despite opposition from safety officials claiming that the exemption needlessly increases fatigue risk.
The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration five-year waiver would exempt commercial railroad employees from the FMCSA’s 14-hour and 60-hour/70-hour rules. Current HOS rules prohibit drivers from driving after the 14th hour after coming on duty as well as after 60 or 70 hours on duty in a moving seven- or eight-day week.
The exemption, scheduled to be posted in the Federal Register on Wednesday, was sought by the Association of American Railroads (AAR) and the American Short Line and Regional Railroad Association (ASLRRA). It covers approximately 20,000 drivers who are subject to FMCSA’s HOS regulations.
The railroads assert that their drivers “respond to emergency events requiring immediate response and repair,” according to their application, and therefore a timely response could be hindered by the off-duty requirements contained within the HOS rules.
“When an emergency occurs, these drivers are needed to repair railroad structures that allow trains to transport critical materials and goods (e.g., chlorine for water treatment plants, coal and other energy products to power public utilities, and food and medical/consumer goods needed to sustain life). Their work can be time sensitive, at remote locations, occur on short notice [and] at any time of the day.”
The exemption includes certain restrictions. Drivers can extend the 14-hour duty period to no more than 17 hours and cannot exceed 11 hours of driving time following 10 consecutive hours off duty. In addition, the 60- and 70-hour rule can be extended by no more than six hours and drivers would not be able to travel more than 300 air miles from the normal work-reporting location or terminal.
The railroads’ exemption request was supported by the National Railroad Construction and Maintenance Association but was opposed by several others, including the Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance (CVSA).
“This request would significantly extend the amount of time drivers can operate, exposing them to higher risk for fatigue and negatively impacting safety,” CVSA warned. “Short of an emergency declaration, there is not a reasonable need for relaxation of the hours-of-service requirements to the level requested in this application.”
CVSA also asserted that an HOS exemption should not be granted based on whether it fits a particular industry’s business model. “If an expedited response to these ‘unplanned events’ are as critical as AAR and ASLRRA suggest in their application, then their member companies should design their business models to respond quickly while still operating within the safety regulations.”
In granting the exemption, however, FMCSA said that the relief is limited to only the trip to the scene of the unplanned event and such events would happen only occasionally.
“Drivers would not regularly operate CMVs after accumulating 60 or 70 hours of on-duty time during seven or eight consecutive days,” the agency stated. “Drivers’ standard schedules would include adherence to the 14-hour rule and the 60- and 70-hour rules.”