DOT Hours of Service Exemption: Truckers say not good enough
“What the DOT (Department of Transportation) exemption does is provide a one-year exemption to commercial livestock haulers. In general, drivers are required to take a 30-minute break after eight hours of driving, and this exemption does away with that because of the health and safety concerns for the livestock that occur when they are on a truck longer than necessary,” explained Nebraska Farm Bureau vice president and head of government relations Jay Rempe of the recent DOT decision that many consider a necessary and positive thing for the livestock industry.
North Dakota Stockmen’s Association Executive Director Julie Ellingson echoed Rempe’s statement that the exemption is a benefit that will be felt across the industry and country.
“We feel it is really important for the health and welfare of livestock being hauled to have this exemption. The goal of the DOT in making this rule was to prevent driver fatigue, however those 30 minutes would result in increased fatigue of livestock, and we are grateful for the exemption,” she stated.
But for those truckers on the road hauling livestock and other ag commodities, the 30-minute exemption is a mere drop in the bucket of issues that hinder their ability to do their job according to Stickney, South Dakota’s Ben Spaans, who owns a trucking business made up of about 70-percent hopper loads and 30 percent cattle.
“They’ll never do it, but the DOT should throw their new rules they implemented in 2003 out the window for agriculture and realize that most of us are smart enough to go to bed when we’re tired and get up when we feel rested enough to go. They just don’t understand that no aspect of agriculture trucking works on a steady, 8-5 basis, and enforcing rules designed for that workday prohibits our ability to do our job and actually makes us more likely to run while tired just to maximize the hours of driving time we have available,” said Spaans.
At the time of the interview, Spaans was hauling a load of fat cattle to Grand Island, Neb., an approximately four-hour trip. The issue with the current DOT rules was waiting for him at his destination.
“I’ll be down there around 5 p.m., and if for some reason there are several trucks in front of me, I may have to sit for 2-4 hours before I’m unloaded. Those 2-4 hours of sit-time cannot be logged as off-duty, since I’m waiting to offload they are considered on-duty not driving. If I’m supposed to be reloading first thing in the morning and have to wait three hours, I will be late because I legally have to take 10 hours off after 14 hours, and that wait time will bump me to 13 or 14 hours.
“Therefore, that guy I told I would load at 7 a.m. now has to be told I will be 3-4 hours late, just to keep my logbook legal. If his load is also going to Grand Island for the noon kill of fat cattle, they will not make it and the plant will be mad at him because his cattle not arriving screws up their schedule. Then I’ll make it worse by hauling those cattle through the heat of the day, increasing the stress they’re put through, and showing up with them that evening. That is real the problem with the current DOT rules, and taking away a 30-minute break within that day does little to nothing to solve it,” explained Spaans.
However, that isn’t to say that in his opinion the 30-minute exemption isn’t helpful to those long-distance livestock haulers. It is simply not beneficial for mid-range haulers, which is the category he and the majority of other area livestock truckers fall into.
“The place that 30-minute exemption would help drivers like myself is on the grain hopper side. We primarily do 50-250 mile hauls, or one to five-hour hauls at a time, and actually lose a load a day because of that half-hour break. Elevators don’t care if it’s 5:05 p.m., they open at 8 a.m. and close at 5 p.m., and if it’s after that you wait until the next day. Anything ag related should be exempt of the 30-minute break rule if they’re hauling within the state or a 250 mile radius of home in my opinion,” he said.
As a whole, the safety factors the DOT attempted to improve upon with the implementation of their new rules in 2003, including the 30-minute break following eight hours of drive time, have actually made the road less safe according to Spaans.
“I see all these drivers going up and down the road with their onboard electronic logbooks, and they’re pushing as hard as they can in order to go as far as possible in their 14 hours of available drive time. It’s much more unsafe now because they don’t have the flexibility to stop when they’re tired and still drive an acceptable distance each day.
“Before the change of the rules you were allowed 15 hours of on-duty time, with 10 hours of that as driving time. It didn’t matter how you logged it, so long as you didn’t go over 15 hours in any 24-hour period. Now, you basically have 14 hours from the time you start to get your work done, and that really screws things up, especially in the agriculture business,” he explained.
Going forward, Spaans said an increased awareness and understanding of the true implications of rules at the driver level would be a welcome if unlikely change to current DOT operations.
“Our members’ area of focus has been the livestock side, and we will continue to push for this to become a permanent policy so that we don’t have to make a request for the exemption every year,” concluded Ellingson of the hope to make the 30-minute exemption a permanent improvement for as many livestock haulers as possible. ❖