The way Ray Mikowski and a lot of others in the trucking industry see it, the rules that govern how long a driver can be behind the wheel are long out of date.
“Back when they made the laws, trucks couldn't go as fast, they rode a lot rougher, and the roads weren't as good,” said the trucker from Plainwell, Mich. “We should be able to drive longer, as long as we get breaks.”
But how to revise the “hours of service” regulations, many of which date to 1939, remains a topic of widespread disagreement. It's also a topic of serious concern for federal regulators, who estimate that each year 755 people are killed and 19,705 injured in accidents involving fatigued commercial vehicle drivers.
Two years ago, when the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration unveiled its proposal for changing rules about how long truckers may drive, it caught flak from many directions.
The trucking industry protested that mandatory two-day “weekends” after five days' work would ruin efficiency. Small carriers and independents complained they could not afford electronic recorders to replace paper driving logs, a primary enforcement tool.
Safety advocates said provisions for longer daily driving hours would compromise a safety record they consider to be poor.
Congress responded with a one-year moratorium on further revision of the so-called “hours of service” regulations. Now work has resumed, starting with a federal consultant assessing options in light of comments lodged against the original proposal.
More than 53,000 comments were received after the original proposal's publication, said David Longo, a spokesman for the safety administration. He declined to discuss possible changes.
The current regulations' inadequacy is not disputed. Most truck and commercial bus drivers legally may not drive after either 10 hours on the road or a total of 15 hours on duty until they have eight hours off-duty.
They also may not drive after being on duty 60 hours in seven consecutive days or 70 hours in eight consecutive days. Exceptions are provided, such as for truckers hauling produce during harvest season.
A centerpiece of the revisions, proposed in 2000, was to reconfigure driving hours so that they could be coordinated with a 24-hour clock.
The current scheme, which tends to create a 10-hours-on, eight-hours-off cycle for long-haul truck drivers, conflicts with a normal sleep cycle, according to studies cited by federal agencies.
But the safety administration's proposed change to a 14-hour work day - with a two-hour rest period included - followed by 10 hours of mandatory rest, angered safety groups such as Parents Against Tired Truckers, which said 10 hours on the road is plenty.
“Certainly there should be no more driving time than they have now,” said Daphne Izer, the president of the Lisbon, Maine, group. “Fourteen hours on, 10 hours off, means more time to drive.”
Ed Nagle, president of the Nagle Companies, a trucking line in Lake Township, said taking two consecutive days off “should be a driver's choice.”
Mandating it after five days would cause many long-haul truckers to park their rigs during the middle of a haul, he said.
“Drivers, by nature, are not typical 40-hour-week people,” Mr. Nagle said. “These shutdowns often could be far away from home.”
Even the proposal to eliminate paper logbooks, which are falsified with such regularity that they are widely referred to in the industry as “comic books,” generated controversy.
But small trucking firms and independent operators told federal authorities that their profit margins are so slim that they can't afford the electronic tracking devices.
Federal officials acknowledge that the new driving rules will not be cheap - the safety administration estimates a cost to the general public of $3.4 billion over 10 years.
But the agency believes the benefit, in terms of property damage savings and deaths and injuries prevented, will be double that.
Mr. Nagle said loading-dock delays are a main reason that truck drivers feel pressure to skirt the hours of service laws.
While most workers are paid by the hour, federal law exempts truck drivers and does not require overtime pay beyond a 40-hour week.
Truckers who are paid by the mile, Ms. Izer said, get nothing for the time spent waiting for their trailers to be loaded or unloaded.
“If the compensation system doesn't change, then nothing else will,” Ms. Izer said. “Drivers need to be paid for all hours worked.”
Larry Lancour, a 25-year independent trucker from Waldron, Mich., said he'd like to get overtime pay for the long hours he works.
However, he said he isn't about to park his rig until working conditions improve.
“I've been doing it for so long, and I like what I do,” he said. “I can make a decent living. But I don't envy any rookies, and you don't see a whole lot of them out here.”