By Thomas J. Bukowski, associate editor
“This is the best thing that has happened to this industry since they put the mules back into the barn.”
This is what Steve Rush, a 30-year veteran of the trucking industry and owner of Wharton, NJ-based trucking company Carbon Express, had to say about electronic onboard recorders. The devices track a truck’s movements in real time, replacing the paper logbook for recording federal hours-of-service compliance.
A mandate in the Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act (P.L. 112-141), a surface transportation funding bill signed into law July 6, requires all commercial motor vehicle carriers to install EOBRs within two years after the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration publishes its final rule. At press time, the final rule was expected to be published in or after October 2013.
Rush predicts EOBRs will improve the safety of the industry by increasing compliance with HOS regulations, which would help ensure truck drivers only work when rested.
Not everyone shares Rush’s belief, however. “This is being done under the guise of compliance with federal [HOS] regulations, but it is actually a way for large motor carrier companies to squeeze more ‘productivity’ out of drivers and increase costs for the small trucking companies they compete with,” Todd Spencer, executive vice president of the Grain Valley, MO-based Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, said in an April 25 press release on an earlier version of the mandate in the Senate version of the bill.
Potential for misuse
The devices currently on the market only track whether a truck is moving, and the driver indicates whether he or she is on-duty or off-duty, OOIDA spokesperson Norita Taylor told Safety+Health. This could allow a driver to input a false start or end time to work more hours, she said.
“EOBRs have been pushed for by proponents on the premise of safety,” Taylor said, “when in fact they will not ensure compliance with HOS because they require manual input from the driver to track work status.”
Another concern for some drivers is whether carriers can alter the devices’ records to force drivers to work longer than HOS regulations allow. Taylor noted that during an FMCSA listening session on EOBRs that took place in March, an OOIDA member driver stated his carrier does this.
Rob Abbott, vice president of safety policy for the Arlington, VA-based American Trucking Associations, said the ability to tamper or falsify information with EOBRs is a “limitation” but is addressed in the most recent mandate language. According to the mandate in the surface transportation funding bill, also known as MAP-21, the devices must be certified as tamper-resistant to prevent drivers or carriers from recording incorrect on-duty times or altering records.
Abbott said he hopes the final rule will retain this language or include a requirement that if a record is altered, the device will retain the original record as well.
“This is a record the driver can then use to his or her benefit to protect him- or herself, and present to the motor carrier management to say, ‘Here is an instance of a dispatcher forcing me to do something I was not legally allowed to do,’” Abbott said.
EOBRs can allow a carrier to track employees’ truck movements at any given time, which has made some drivers feel uncomfortable and, in some cases, harassed by their carrier, Taylor said.
“We hear from drivers who tell us they had been sleeping or stopped to rest, and the electronic onboard recorder is being monitored by the home office, who then contacts them to find out why they are not driving when they have more hours left to drive,” Taylor said. These drivers claim they are asked to drive when tired, she said.
Abbott said a better term for “harass” is “micromanage,” in that carriers using EOBRs have a greater degree of information about drivers on the roads, allowing dispatchers to make decisions in real time based on how many hours drivers have left for each day. “I think the term ‘harassment’ is a misnomer and a term used to dramatize the circumstance,” he said.
Rush, who voluntarily adopted EOBRs into his fleet, said having more real-time information has improved the safety of his drivers. “They have, for the first time, a voice that tells them when there is one hour left or two hours left,” he said. “The drivers said that they now have routine in their workday and as a result do not fight sleep behind the wheel anymore.”
Stephen A. Keppler, executive director of the Greenbelt, MD-based Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance, said having a real-time digital record makes police enforcement safety inspections go more quickly.
Industry, driver adoption
The truck companies that have not yet voluntarily adopted EOBRs may never do so unless forced to – and these often are the companies that need the devices the most, Keppler said. The mandate would require these companies to install them and, as a result, drivers would be safer and more responsible, he said.
When Rush introduced EOBRs into his fleet, he said, many drivers initially were resistant to using them – one employee even left in protest. However, after about two weeks Rush noticed a shift in attitude toward acceptance.
“Several drivers called me and said, ‘Since I began working here, this is the best thing you have ever done,’” he said. “We need to treat [our drivers] right, treat them with respect and do the right things for them. When we advertise for a driver, we put down ‘electronic logs.’”
But ultimately, Taylor said, the driver – not an electronic device – has the final say on safety. “The safest thing you can put in a truck is a well-trained and well-rested driver – they are the only ones [who] know if they are safe,” she said.