On the Road

What this country needs is a good $300 electronic log

May 21, 2012

As the House and Senate try to come to agreement on a highway bill that could include a requirement to mandate electronic onboard recorders, I want to say, I believe we're being taken for a ride on this push to mandate EOBRs.

There's a really big difference between the most basic electronic logging device and the type of EOBR that it looks like the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration is trying to shove down our throats.

Before the agency mandates these things, they need take a step back and consider what the vast majority of the people in this country who operate heavy trucks really needs versus what a relative handful of large carriers and few purveyors of such technology say they can deliver.

Only industry can force such a change. Silence is tantamount to approval.

FMCSA's recently vacated Regulation 395.16 is a mega-carrier's wish list, and one that if left unchecked will impose a huge technological burden that the majority of the industry neither want, need, or should be required to pay for.

I should declare my position on electronic logs at this point, so there's no confusion: I see no point in mandating them, because I believe they will not contribute to safety in any additional way than the current HOS rules and paper logs rules do.

HOS requires drivers to declare a minimum number of hours off-duty or in a sleeper before they begin a day's work. Further, the rules prescribe the maximum number of hours a driver may drive in a 24-hour period, and the maximum number of hours a driver may spend on-duty in 7-day period. That's all HOS does. The rules do not require a driver to sleep during the off-duty period, and the rules provide no guarantees that driver will not be sleepy during the workshift due to any number of causes.

Should a driver elect to continue driving while sleepy -- like the driver in the Miami, Okla. crash back in 2009 -- no paper log nor EOBR (he had one in his truck) will make any difference whatsoever.

Yes, EOBRs will make it harder to get away with cheating on the rules. They will also make compliance verification much easier. EOBRs are about compliance, not safety. There's a difference. Just ask the driver in the Miami crash. (Read "When Compliance Doesn't Equal Safety," 10/18/2010)

I don't have a problem with carriers of any size or description using EOBRs for their own purposes. I can see the advantages of not having to store truckloads of log sheets for six months, or having to wade through them and match receipts to the log sheets during an audit. If carriers want to track their drivers' duty status in real time, and don't mind the cost of the telematics and GPS and satellite or cellular time, fine. For those reasons alone, I'm sure EOBRs are well worth the money.

But for a 10- or a 50-truck fleet or a single-truck operation with no need for such functionality, why should they be forced to go along with what a handful of large carriers and the enforcement community has told FMCSA they want?

The Right Tool for the Job

Back in 1988, FMCSA came up with a rule for electronic logging devices -- regulation 395.15. That rule specified relatively simple requirements for devices used to record drivers' duty-status records electronically. That rule laid out the bare minimums for what they called then an Automatic On-Board Recording Devices (AOBRD), or ELD, electronic logging device.

If you haven't already done so, I'd strongly urge you to compare the differences between regulations 395.15 and 395.16. You're in for a heck of a surprise.

Regulation 395.16 was the one the Owner Operators Independent Drivers Association succeeded in having thrown out on grounds that carriers would be able use EOBRs to harass drivers. It's in limbo at the moment. FMCSA says it expects to have a new proposal in place by the end of the year, so here's the small carrier or owner-operator's chance to weigh in.

Here's the issue; the new generation of EOBRs, as defined in 395.16, would go well beyond what's required to comply with the current HOS rules. There is nothing in the current HOS rule that requires a device to transmit time and location data to a terminal at regular intervals. So why is that part of 395.16?

The current HOS rules require a location to be noted at a change of duty status, so the driver can write in the city, town, highway mile marker, etc. to describe his or her location. Reg 396.15 requires a database of information so satellite, cellular or GPS coordinates can be transposed to physical locations.

An EOBR, under 395.16, is way more than is necessary for HOS compliance as described in 395.15. Why do we need all that electronic connectivity and location coding when a driver with a keypad could easily type in a location? Why do we need any connection between a truck and a terminal?

As I said earlier, if a fleet wants to use its satellite or cellular telematics systems in conjunction with an HOS recording device as a fleet management tool, fine. Knock yourself out. But if a fleet doesn't want or need that capability, why should it be required to buy and maintain all that expensive equipment and the monthly connection fees?

Here's what I think is going to happen if this EOBR mandate comes to pass. All the so-called form and manner violations will disappear, along with the "duty status not current" violations. Together, those two violations (395.8 and 395.8F1) accounted for 342,000 citations issued in 2011. They are the top two driver violations recorded by enforcement last year.

If they suddenly disappear, EOBRs will be hailed as the greatest safety breakthrough trucking has ever seen. More like the greatest compliance breakthrough. I maintain not a single life will be spared by an EOBR, but when officials get through spinning it to the public, the politicians and the press, look out. It'll be E-everything from there on in.

The European Model

I think it's only a matter of time before some requirement emerges for electronic HOS recording. I hate to say it, but the tide of public and therefore political opinion is pushing regulators in that direction, so we might as well get used to it.

Hard-coding HOS compliance has been a fact of life in Europe for years. Mostly it was accomplished through pen and ink cards called tachographs that recorded travel times and vehicle speed. HOS compliance was derived from the number of hours the vehicle had been driven in a day.

Today, the same information is recorded in more or less the same manner, except it's now digital rather than physical. Frankly, I believe that's all we need here.

Data is easily checked at roadside. The records are permanent, and can be transferred physically through a USB device, wirelessly, via email, or on the driver's "smartcard," embedded with a chip so it's portable from truck to truck and carrier to carrier, in the case of drivers who work for multiple carriers.

In Europe, location isn't recorded on the tachographs, and when you think about it, it doesn't really need to be. Location was important when inspectors had to get the maps out to measure the distance and time between two duty status changes. On a digital tachograph, it shows a line driving from one point in time to another. It's HOURS of service we're dealing with here, not MILES of service. The day's hours worked are recorded, along with vehicle speed and distance traveled. Drivers note with the press of a button their duty statu