The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) has announced long-awaited and final revisions to truck driver hours of service (HOS) regulations, set to take effect on Sept. 29.

Drivers benefit in several ways that will not compromise safety on the highways. according to the FMCSA. Rules affecting the 30-minute required break for drivers, sleeper berth exceptions, driving in adverse weather conditions and short haul exceptions all received modifications.

Over the course of 232 pages, the agency reviewed and responded to 8,000 public comments, which addressed the changes FMCSA published in its notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM) last August.

In a break with past regulatory measures, FMCSA states that it sought to increase driver flexibility without decreasing safety. FMCSA estimates that the “safety- and health-neutral” changes in the final rule will result in cost savings of $274 million annually.

FMCSA stressed that the overall structure of HOS rules has not changed. Drivers are still held to a maximum 11 hours of driving within a 14-hour driving window/workday (except for adverse driving conditions, discussed below); must still take at least 10 hours off between workdays; and the “weekly” maximums on driving time are still in place.

To increase flexibility, the final rule makes four changes. These changes will become effective 120 days after the final rule was published in the Federal Register:

  • The mandatory 30-minute rest break remains, but drivers will now break after eight hours of driving time, rather than after eight hours of on-duty time. Plus, the rest break may now be taken while performing on-duty/not driving tasks (such as fueling or loading). Previously the rule required the driver be completely off-duty for the 30-minute break. This welcome change also means that drivers do not need to search for a location to park so the driver can go completely off-duty. After all, if the rest break is taken while fueling or loading, for example, the truck is already securely parked.
  • The sleeper berth exception now requires only seven hours in the sleeper berth, rather than eight. Drivers can now spend the rest of the ten plus hours off-duty inside or outside of the berth. So, in place of the current eight/two split, a driver may choose a seven/three split. Neither time period will count against the driver’s 14-hour driving window, so drivers will not feel tempted to speed or operate unsafely because their workday is closing.
  • The short-haul exception expanded from a 12-hour workday to a 14-hour workday and from a 100-airmile radius to a 150-airmile radius. However, the maximum 11 hours of driving time for short-haulers remains. FMCSA found that short-haul operations typically involve multiple stops. The increase in workday hours and air-mile radius will provide more flexibility in dealing with customer and seasonal demands. These changes also match the rules for short-haul drivers who hold a commercial driver’s license (CDL) to the workday and air-mile radius already allowed for non-CDL short-haul drivers. In either case, short-haul drivers are not required to have electronic logging devices (ELDs) in their trucks or to maintain paper logs, but their employer is required to maintain time records.
  • Drivers who encounter adverse road conditions already had the ability to extend their driving time by two hours, from 11 hours to 13. The final rule also extends the 14-hour driving window by two hours, to 16 hours. Now, drivers nearing the end of their workday have time to proceed slowly or find a safe location to park. Under the existing rule, “adverse road conditions” were defined as road conditions which were unknown, or could not have been reasonably known, immediately before a motor carrier dispatched a driver. FMCSA has now clarified that drivers can also evaluate road conditions immediately before starting a duty day or right after a sleeper berth break. FMCSA noted that “adverse road conditions” can include weather-related issues, accidents, road closures or extreme traffic – but all must be unforeseen to qualify.

FMCSA did not address several important items in the final rule. A proposal to allow drivers to take a single, off-duty break from 30 minutes to three hours before resuming work did not make the cut. FMCSA cited lack of information on the possible safety and health impacts of the “split-duty” proposal. Some comments on the proposal said this change would have effectively created a 17-hour workday and was open to abuse.

FMCSA also acknowledged but did not take steps to address concerns about driver detention and truck parking because both were beyond the scope of the HOS rulemaking. FMCSA similarly resisted comments calling for mandatory ELDs or other time-recording devices for short-haul drivers, citing costs and the fact that those were not discussed in the NPRM.

FMCSA rejected appeals to drop the requirement that short-haul drivers return to their normal work reporting location at the end of each workday, saying that would blur distinctions between short-haul and long-haul operations.

The HOS final rule could go into effect as early as late September. As with past HOS rulemakings, litigation could delay the implementation of these changes.