By JOHN O'CONNELL
Agricultural shippers say they're bracing for federal trucking safety regulations that take effect July 1 and threaten to make transporting freight more costly and time-consuming.
The rule changes will reduce a long-haul driver's seven-day work week from 82 to 70 hours, counting waiting time while cargo is loaded and unloaded.
Drivers will need to take a 30-minute break for every eight hours on the road. Furthermore, regulations allowing drivers to restart their work weeks after 34 hours of consecutive time off will soon mandate the breaks include at least two nights of rest from 1 to 5 a.m., when officials reason the body needs sleep the most. The 34-hour restart, now available at a driver's discretion, will be allowed only once every seven days.
The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration announced the final rule specifying the forthcoming changes in December 2011, in response to litigation by safety activists. Fines for each infraction may be up to $11,000 for trucking companies and $2,750 for drivers.
In response to the new regulations, Potandon Produce, a fresh packer of potatoes in Idaho Falls, has a team studying ways to load trucks more efficiently, said Jamey Higham, vice president of sales.
"I imagine there will be an increase in transit times across the U.S. ... that will cause a little bit of a decrease in availability of freight, which will probably mean our freight rates will go up," Higham said, adding Potandon may place greater emphasis on rail cars.
In anticipation of the change, Wada Farms in Pingree, Idaho, has partnered with a Montana company that routinely has empty grocery delivery trucks passing its facility, said director of logistics Don Meacham. The trucks haul Wada spuds to Ogden, Utah, a major market, saving long-haul drivers time. Wada drivers must now schedule loading appointments to shorten waits.
"We're trying to get ahead of the game. We see there are issues coming," said Meacham, emphasizing he also understands the importance of highway safety.
Most shipping at Larsen Farms in Dubois, Idaho, is covered by an Hours of Service rules exemption for agriculture-related cargo bound for destinations within a 150-mile radius. However, Ron Lee, the farm's head of transportation, estimates the changes will require an extra half day per week to move equipment between Larsen's Texas and Idaho farms.
Phoenix transportation analyst Andy Ahern believes the changes will exacerbate trucking supply challenges stemming from a shortage of drivers, increasing the costs of goods and ruining many small trucking businesses. Ahern also expects more agricultural shippers will hire third-party logistics companies to help with shipping.
The American Trucking Association cited an FMCSA analysis estimating trucking companies will spend $320 million just to prepare for the rule.
Jon Samson, who oversees an ATA committee over agricultural and food issues, said his organization challenged the rule changes in district court, arguing they're not supported by valid statistics, and is awaiting a ruling. The 2012 highway bill also authorizes a study regarding changes to the 34-hour restart provision. FMCSA has denied opponents' requests to delay implementing the new rules.