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Drivers eye new law with concern

January 04, 2004|by ANDREW SCHOTZ

andrews@herald-mail.com

Starting today, big-rig drivers will be able to keep on truckin' for another hour - if they take longer breaks.

The U.S. Department of Transportation is billing the first change in hours-of-service rules in more than 60 years as a traffic triumph.

"The new safety rule gives us the means to save hundreds of lives, protect billions in commerce and safeguard our roads and highways for years to come," Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta said in a statement posted at the DOT's Web site.

The DOT said the new work and rest schedule is "more in line with a person's circadian rhythm," which is like an inner clock that regulates how much sleep people need.

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The new rule, each year, will save 75 lives, prevent 1,326 fatigue-related injuries and 6,900 property damage-only crashes, and save the American economy $628 million, the DOT estimated.

On the road Saturday, truckers weren't as sure.

They talked about the pressure of getting as far as they can in the quickest time.

They wondered whether the new rule was just a greater opportunity for the government to collect fines.

And they noted that drivers have less time to finish their shifts, which could lead to quicker breaks and more compressed driving schedules.

Safety is no guarantee, they said.

Until today, truckers were allowed to drive up to 15 hours after eight hours off-duty. Of those 15 hours, 10 hours could be in a row.

Now, drivers may stay on the road 11 straight hours instead of 10 - but only after 10 hours off-duty. Also, their shifts must end after 14 hours - even if they have driven less than 11 hours.

William Springirth, 59, of Berkeley Springs, W.Va., who hauls advertising inserts and other printed materials, said that only some trips require him to drive the maximum hours per shift.

If he drives from Martinsburg, W.Va., to New Jersey, he can break the journey into legs. But if he has to drive to Massachusetts, he drives the full 10 hours in a row.

Springirth, who works for his son, William Springirth Jr., said a driver can't help but be more tired if that stretch extends to 11 hours.

"The public should be a little bit concerned," he said.

Springirth spoke as he rested at a truck stop on Hopewell Road in Halfway, a popular break, fuel and meal spot for truckers who roll through the Tri-State region on Interstate 81.

Brad Holt, 43, of Washington, Ga., said the new rule will let drivers travel farther at one time, but with fatigue as a result.

With the 14-hour deadline, he said, "people will be in more of a rush" to get places and less likely to stop and recharge for a while.

Holt, who drives for Roberson Transportation Services in Champaign, Ill., said his company, like other hauling businesses, has computer systems that limit how fast trucks can travel.

He said Roberson is strict about checking drivers' log books, which are detailed travel diaries.

With a 15-hour shift, some drivers were apt to "shut down for four, five hours - take a nap," said Silas Whitley, 40, who drives for Poly Trucking in Grand Prairie, Texas.

Instead, trying to finish a shift within 14 hours, drivers will push to get far, he said.

Whitley said the difference is magnified by East Coast traffic, where "it's nothing to lose four, five hours on the freeway."

Distance means money. "We get paid by the mile," he said.

A man who wouldn't give his name but said he drives for Covenant Transport in Chattanooga, Tenn., called the new rule "a sham." He said DOT is trying to confuse drivers into paying more fines.

Drivers can be fined for insignificant reasons, such as denoting the month of January as "1" instead of "01" in a log book, he said.

The man noted that the limits on hours only apply to drivers hauling property; passenger carriers, such as bus drivers, are exempt.

At Hoffman Transport in State Line, Pa., driver Al Shenk talked about the new rule before taking off for Maine with a load of produce.

Shenk, 51, who lives in Cumberland, Md., said the change won't affect him much because he usually rides with a trainee, who can split a shift with him.

But for solo drivers, "this is a big change (from) what we're used to," he said.

"From the public's standpoint, they'll see this as a benefit for their safety," Shenk said.

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration has asked states to write warnings instead of citations for the first 60 days, unless the violations are flagrant.

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