Truckers and technology: Will electronic logging devices lead to safer roads?

Using paper logs to record hours of service will soon be a thing of the past for commercial motor vehicle drivers

Electronic logging devices

Photo: Missouri Department of Transportation

The federal government wants to reduce injuries and fatalities that result from crashes involving large trucks and buses. To help achieve this goal, officials issued a final rule that will require commercial motor vehicle drivers to use electronic logging devices to record their time on the road.

Driver Brian Kelley of Grottoes, VA, isn’t certain the rule will save lives and prevent injuries. He also wonders whether the requirement for drivers to use tracking technology instead of paper records will increase fatigued driving rather than reduce it.

“Electronic logs do NOT make a safer driver,” Kelley wrote in a public comment submitted to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. “In fact, I’d say it makes a more stressed and tired driver. If a driver knows that someone is always able to see exactly every move he or she makes, that said [driver] would have added stress.

“I’ve driven 1.7 million miles without a ticket or an accident and I’ve never been asked anything about these regulations yet they get enacted. Let’s get some people [with] actual experience involved with the rulemaking instead of special interests and bureaucrats.”

Kelley’s concerns were echoed by other CMV drivers who provided feedback to FMCSA. Some said they are worried that motor carriers will harass drivers to remain behind the wheel if electronic records show every stop or rest break in real time. Others cite a lack of evidence to support the agency’s claim that the requirement will improve safety.

However, FMCSA asserts that instead of scribbling hours-of-service records in a notebook – and possibly fudging the numbers – ELDs will provide a more accurate and efficient method of tracking drive times.

ELDs record specific details from each vehicle at frequent intervals, including date, time, location, engine hours, vehicle miles and identification information for the driver, vehicle and motor carrier. Location data is stored at 60-minute intervals when the CMV is in motion, as well as at other times, such as when the driver starts or shuts down the engine. FMCSA allows, but does not require, ELDs to warn drivers when they are approaching their hours-of-service limits.

According to FMCSA, a motor carrier must retain ELD record of duty status data and back-up data for six months. The back-up copy of ELD records must be maintained on a device separate from the one on which the original data is stored. Additionally, a motor carrier must retain a driver’s ELD records in a manner that protects driver privacy.

Much of the argument in favor of ELDs boils down to fatigue. If paper records are manipulated, drivers could be on the road for longer than they claim. A fatigued driver of any vehicle, let alone a 40-ton truck traveling at 55 mph or faster, presents life-threatening dangers to all who share the road. FMCSA estimates that the ELD final rule will save 26 lives and prevent 562 injuries every year from crashes involving large trucks and buses.

“This regulation will change the trucking industry – for the better – forever,” Bill Graves, president and CEO of the Arlington, VA-based American Trucking Associations, said in a press release. “An already safe and efficient industry will get more so with the aid of this proven technology.”

Deadline approaching

CMV drivers soon will have no choice but to replace paper logs with ELDs. FMCSA announced its final rule requiring ELDs on Dec. 10, 2015, and at press time the transition phase was set to end Dec. 18, 2017.

That gives carriers and drivers about one more year to acquire and register their ELDs. The final rule allows drivers to use smartphones and other wireless devices as ELDs. Carriers and drivers who use automatic onboard recording devices instead of paper logs before the 2017 compliance date will have until Dec. 16, 2019, to make the move to ELDs. Some drivers will be exempt, including those who operate under short-haul exceptions and those who file paper record of duty status reports no more than eight days out of every 30-day period.

Once the Dec. 18, 2017, compliance deadline goes into effect, drivers will have to carry four items:

  • A user’s manual that describes how to operate the ELD.
  • A sheet listing step-by-step instructions on producing and transferring HOS records to an authorized safety official.
  • A sheet that informs drivers about ELD malfunction reporting requirements and how to maintain records during such malfunctions.
  • At least eight days’ worth of blank grids for drivers to log record of duty status reports.

Transportation officials say ELDs will help move trucking safety into the 21st century.

“Since 1938, complex, on-duty/off-duty logs for truck and bus drivers were made with pencil and paper, virtually impossible to verify,” Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx said in a press release. “This automated technology not only brings logging records into the modern age, it also allows roadside safety inspectors to unmask violations of federal law that put lives at risk.”

Case goes to court

The Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association is trying to put the brakes on the ELD rule before it goes into effect. The Grain Valley, MO-based organization of small-business CMV drivers filed a lawsuit against FMCSA on March 29, arguing the mandate would not improve safety and would violate drivers’ Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable search and seizure.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit heard the case Sept. 13 in Chicago. OOIDA reiterated its desire for the court to vacate the rule. At press time, the court had not yet issued a ruling.

OOIDA spokesperson Norita Taylor said ELDs track vehicle movement but are unable to decipher whether a driver is on or off duty. Therefore, the driver must input his or her record of duty status manually, making ELDs no more reliable than the traditional paper logs.

“There would be no impact on safety because it has nothing to do with safety. It’s just a recordkeeping device,” Taylor said in an interview with Safety+Health.

In addition to harboring privacy concerns, critics claim the rule could create opportunities for carriers to harass drivers about where and when they decided to stop driving.

“Carriers that have [ELDs] quite often use them to pressure drivers to drive more than they would otherwise because they can see that they have available time left on their record of duty status,” Taylor said. “So, drivers who want to stop and rest because they’re tired or because of traffic congestion or because of weather, if they stop, the home office can see that they’ve stopped, and they could contact them instantly and ask them why the truck isn’t moving. And they’ll tell them to keep moving because they have time left on their clock.”

The ELD rule includes provisions that protect drivers from harassment, according to FMCSA. Drivers who are harassed may file a written complaint under 49 CFR 386.12(b).

OOIDA states that “gadgets” should not be the focus for those who want to improve safety.

“The best thing you can put in a truck is a well-trained driver,” Taylor said.

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