Local trucking businesses fret over new driver restrictions

The U.S. trucking industry is fighting new work rules for drivers. They take effect Monday. (AP/Ben Margot)

Ben Margot

New trucking regulations kick in Monday, requiring drivers to take more breaks and work fewer hours as a means to lessen fatigue while they operate big rigs.

Lowcountry trucking companies are preparing for the impacts of the changes, with some predicting more trucks on the road, scheduling woes, supply chain disruptions and a drop-off in productivity.

“Those who have regular runs that have drivers home every night and don’t have a super-tight schedule will not be heavily impacted, but that is not the major sector of the trucking industry,” said Rick Todd, president of the S.C. Trucking Association. “Long-haul drivers, those with irregular routes for the customer’s needs, they will be substantially impacted.”

The new Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration policy limits drivers to 70 hours of work over a week, down from 82 hours currently allowed. Drivers also must take a 34-hour “restart period” that must include two consecutive 1 a.m. to 5 a.m. off-duty periods. The new policy also requires that drivers not operate a rig for more than eight straight hours without a 30-minute break.

To prepare for the changes, Superior Transportation in North Charleston has been running trials under the shorter work schedules. Locally based Bulldog Hiway Express has reformatted its electronic on-board driver log system to abide by the new regulations.

Officials for the two companies agreed that the changes will require more drivers.

“This new rule means it will take more trucks and more truck drivers to move the same amount of cargo today,” said Phil Byrd, chief executive officer of Bulldog Hiway Express and incoming chairman of the board of the American Trucking Associations.

The new rules are taking effect as the industry is scrambling to meet labor shortages. Firms already are offering signing bonuses and other perks to lure new drivers as older drivers retire.

The American Trucking Associations has estimated the industry will need to fill nearly 100,000 driving jobs in each of the next 10 years.

The shortage of drivers is exacerbated by other issues, such as applicants who can’t pass background checks and a reluctance among younger workers to be on the road for extended periods, experts have said.

“This couldn’t have come at a worse time since we are seeing an uptick in business and we are already struggling to fill seats,” said Pat Barber, owner of Superior Transportation. “We had to look at pay raises before, and now we’re looking at productivity issues.”

The American Trucking Associations is leading a challenge to the new regulations in court. Other indsutry officials have urged federal lawmakers to reevaluate the changes.

Steve Williams, chairman of the American Transportation Research Institute, told a House panel on highways and transit earlier this month that the changes could cost the industry as much as $1.4 billion in lost productivity.

Williams asked the panel to delay implementing the changes until there is further research.

“The industry will lose operating flexibility and productivity, and the rules will increase driver stress and frustration,” Williams said.

For now, Lowcountry trucking businesses are talking to customers and drivers about the changes.

Todd of the S.C. Trucking Association said the new rules could disrupt business at distribution centers, which are strategically placed throughout the nation based on the old work rules.

“This removes flexibility, which is very important if you think of a business that is very time-sensitive and the logistics of moving a product from one point to another,” Todd said. “This is a tightly timed system, and it can have ripple efforts, and without flexibility it is going to have a costly impact.”

One of the winners could be truck driving schools, who will be called on to help fill the growing need for more drivers. Palmetto Training in North Charleston is banking on it.

“This policy is going to open a lot of jobs, and we are hoping to see an increase in students here,” said instructor Caroline Clifton.

Reach Tyrone Richardson at 937-5550 and follow him on Twitter @tyrichardsonPC.