The driving hours of commercial truck drivers are regulated by a set of rules known as the hours of service (HOS) intended to prevent fatigue-related accidents by limiting the amount of time spent operating commercial vehicles. Since the 1940s, federal regulators have sought to limit the number of hours commercial truck drivers can operate their vehicles in a given day and over the course of a week. Between 1940 and 2003, the permissible hours of service went largely unchanged for most drivers.
Traditionally, drivers have recorded their hours in paper logbooks to demonstrate compliance with the HOS regulations. Individual drivers must keep copies of their records-of-duty status for seven days and then submit the records to their motor carrier, which then must retain them for six months. However, this paper-based system is susceptible to driver manipulation and falsification. Even the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) has stated that falsification of logbooks is widespread. By all accounts, the current system of manually recorded logbooks is a joke. Yet, despite this “elephant in the room,” the federal government remains unable to mandate onboard devices to improve HOS enforcement.
It Works in Europe, Why Not Here?
Efforts to improve enforcement of the HOS rules span more than four decades. As early as 1971, federal legislation was introduced to require all commercial trucks manufactured after January 1974 to be equipped with tachographs to record driving time, but it was not enacted. In 2003, the FMCSA issued a notice of proposed rulemaking to require truckers to use electronic onboard recorders (EOBR) instead of logbooks for documenting records-of-duty status. In this rulemaking, the FMCSA defined an EOBR as “an electronic device that is capable of recording a driver’s hours of service and duty status accurately and automatically” by recording the amount of time a vehicle is driven. An EOBR would be “integrally synchronized” with a truck’s engine. The EOBR would be linked simultaneously with both the engine and the driver’s telephone so that contemporaneous updates can be sent either through the cellular network or via satellite to a remote server.
This is already being done in the European Union (EU). Commercial trucks in the EU are required to have digital tachographs installed, which are securely monitored by government agencies. Several U.S. carriers, including Schneider National, Maverick USA, J.B. Hunt, Knight Transportation, and U.S. Xpress Enterprises, have voluntarily installed EOBR technology in their fleets.
On Jan. 31, 2011, the FMCSA issued a regulatory proposal that would require interstate commercial trucks to install EOBRs to monitor HOS compliance. The American Trucking Associations (ATA) voiced support for the use EOBRs. The ATA said EOBRs would help drivers better manage fuel use, routes, and other fleet operations. Under the FMCSA proposal, the only mandatory EOBR use would have been for companies with a poor compliance record, which was slated to go into effect in June 2012. This would have required carriers with 10 percent or greater HOS violations during a single compliance review to use EOBRs for a minimum of two years. Short-haul interstate carriers that use timecards to document HOS would not be required to use EOBRs.
However, on May 14, the FMCSA formally rescinded its decision, following an earlier negative ruling by the Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit. Three commercial truck drivers and the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association (OOIDA) petitioned the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals for review of the use of EOBR devices for HOS compliance.
The OOIDA argued the technology has no safety or cost benefits. It contended that it was proposed under the guise of compliance with federal HOS regulations, but was actually a way for larger motor carrier companies to squeeze more productivity out of drivers and increase costs for the small trucking companies with whom they compete.
After a nearly year-long court battle, the OOIDA successfully won to get mandates for EOBRs disallowed – primarily as they would be a form of “harassment,” violating a driver’s right to privacy under the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. As a result, the court granted the petition and vacated the rule.
Hindsight is Always 20-20
Although sympathetic to the potential for abuse, I believe driver fatigue is a safety issue that is best addressed by EOBRs. I am reminded of the back-issue articles of Automotive Fleet I’ve read of the efforts to prevent the installation of seat belts in the 1960s and the controversy over the installation of air bags in the 1970s and 1980s. In hindsight, it is hard to understand why well-meaning people would have opposed these safety measures. Similarly, years from now, I predict people will likewise be scratching their heads over the controversy surrounding EOBRs.
Let me know what you think.