Stoking the log fires: Hours violations, fleet size and ELDs

| July 11, 2016

stoking-the-log-fires

A harsh reality for the smallest fleets has emerged when it comes to hours of service enforcement, based on new analysis of Compliance, Safety, Accountability data by Overdrive sister company RigDig Business Intelligence.

As more large carriers turn to e-logs, fleets of one to four trucks, most of which use paper logs, are being exposed to far more risk when it comes to inspections. And in an ominous potential development, with on-site investigations expected to replace the current compliance-review auditing system and an ELD mandate on the way, the wealth of available operational data could become smoking guns for moving violations long after the occurrences.

As shown in the chart below, the smallest carriers among the for-hire population nationwide received a largely disproportionate share of the 2015 hours violations. At the other end of the scale, the largest carriers have the lowest violation rates.

Shares of all hours of service violations issued in 2015, by carrier size, in the for-hire population

To put the numbers above in perspective, carriers with fewer than 20 trucks, while accounting for just around a third of all active trucks on the road for-hire, received 60 percent of all hours of service violations. Use of electronic logging devices, which have proliferated among larger carriers, appears to play a key role in these compliance stats.

That’s widely assumed, at least, because e-log/ELD systems leave no obvious way other than back-office manipulation to cheat drive time. Likewise, watchers have noted that when a carrier implements electronic logs, its hours violation rate drops as form and manner violations, the most common type of log violation, virtually disappear. In Overdrive research this spring, only one in 10 independents with carrier authority reported using e-logs.

Among drivers using e-logs, many have seen a certain “wave-through” effect in which officers give only scant attention to their e-log during inspections. The phenomenon has been so prevalent that a participant at a 2012 ATHS show in Tennessee was observed with a “powered by e-log” message painted on the driver-side door. But the operator was not using e-logs.

In two states where hours enforcement is heaviest, Oregon truck-enforcement program manager David McKane and Major Jay Thompson of the Arkansas Highway Police both deny a selection bias affecting small carriers.

They also believe sophistication of safety programs at larger carrier levels, with personnel dedicated to emphasizing compliance among drivers and other staff, might well be a more likely culprit for their lower violation rates.

The enforcement disparity between the tiniest fleets and the mega-fleets is partly a result of evolving regulatory matters. It could hold greater importance as an intensifying dynamic plays out at the intersection of hours recording and regs enforcement.

Last December, Congress pulled from public view the CSA Safety Measurement System’s categorical percentiles and alert symbols, pending a review and possible revamp of the program.

But the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration continues to move forward with its long-planned Safety Fitness Determination safety rating system. That system would lean in part on roadside inspection/violation data to make the ratings. The system would replace today’s Satisfactory, Conditional and Unsatisfactory ratings with a single Unfit determination. Any carrier not labeled Unfit would be presumed fit to operate.

Most independent owner-operators and others among the smallest of fleets, meanwhile, are waiting out another rule. FMCSA’s electronic logging device mandate is set to require use of ELDs in December 2017. With the clock ticking, many larger fleets have made the ELD transition or at least started. As previously reported, most small fleets are delaying, hoping that the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association’s legal challenge to the mandate will succeed.

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Oregon’s McKane estimates “that about 20 percent of the carriers we contact use some sort of electronic log. That in and of itself does not prevent log book violations.”

As evidence, McKane shared a photo/scan of a cell-phone message indicating an e-logging fleet’s back-office manipulation of a driver’s hours: “Bought you some time on hours,” the message reads, going on to at least verbally OK the driver for off-duty driving.

The image Oregon's McKane offered as evidence that his state’s truck safety enforcement program is uncovering hours violations even in electronic logging environments.

The image Oregon’s McKane offered as evidence that his state’s truck safety enforcement program is uncovering hours violations even in electronic logging environments.

“E-logs won’t stop you from going over hours,” McKane says; they simply do a better job of recording hours.

Oregon has been at or near the top of Overdrive’s hours-violation-intensity rankings for years, topping the list in 2013, after which Overdrive profiled the state’s inspection program in 2014. The same intensity of hours violations was fairly uncommon at that time, with only four states showing hours violation rates above 20 percent of the total violations issued. By the end of 2015, however, seven states showed hours violation rates above 20 percent. Three rank above Oregon (22.1 percent) in Overdrive’s most recent analysis: Arkansas (35.6 percent), Wyoming (23 percent) and North Dakota (22.8 percent).

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Wyoming and North Dakota are very low-inspection-intensity states, meaning inspection there is unlikely for owner-operators (see the chart below for more). However, Arkansas, with four inspections per lane-mile in 2015, ranked No. 23 in that metric among states. Thompson in 2015 explained his state’s continuing climb up the hours violation rankings as stemming in part from extensive re-training of inspectors on the particularities of the hours regulations.

Percentages indicate the share of hours of service violations within each state’s total issued violations. While annual violation totals rose in each of the first three analyzed periods, reaching an apex in 2014 (a full year in which the hours of service changes to the restart and the 30-minute break were in effect), they declined in the most recent year. However, the number of states rapidly increasing their focus on hours in driver inspections is apparent and did not abate in 2015. Since Overdrive’s CSA’s Data Trail series began with analysis of the 2011-12 period in 2013, there have never been as many states where hours violations account for more than 20 percent of all violations.

Percentages indicate the share of hours of service violations within each state’s total issued violations. While annual violation totals rose in each of the first three analyzed periods, reaching an apex in 2014 (a full year in which the hours of service changes to the restart and the 30-minute break were in effect), they declined in the most recent year. However, the number of states rapidly increasing their focus on hours in driver inspections is apparent and did not abate in 2015. Since Overdrive’s CSA’s Data Trail series began with analysis of the 2011-12 period in 2013, there have never been as many states where hours violations account for more than 20 percent of all violations.

Arkansas’ move up the rankings dovetailed with new regs that restricted use of the restart in mid-2013 and through most of 2014, also adding the 30-minute-break requirement. When Overdrive profiled Arkansas’ program in 2015, 30-minute-break violations accounted for around 20 percent of total hours violations written there. That share declined in 2015, but Arkansas increased its hours violations elsewhere, climbing far above the next closest state.

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Thompson says his state’s program’s emphasis on hours might best be viewed in the context of an FMCSA request to all states in the Motor Carrier Safety Assistance Program. Most states participate in MCSAP, meaning they accept grant funding from the federal government, but with certain strings attached.

In recent years, FMCSA asked those states to do at least a third of their inspections on the driver only, which is Level 3 in the Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance’s standard inspection levels. Thompson, CVSA president, says that FMCSA “saw contributing factors [in crashes] were often driver error.”

Oregon has not participated in MCSAP for the past two years, but McKane echoes such thoughts in the context of more states jumping up the hours rankings. Such states are “realizing that when a truck causes a crash, it is usually the driver that fails, not the equipment,” he says.

When it comes to hours violations, about a third of Overdrive readers reported receiving some kind of hours violation over the two years prior to the below poll, conducted last month, whether a minor ‘form and manner’ violation or another infraction.

Have you received an hours of service violation within the last two years?

Thompson adds, “I think you’re going to see that decrease [in violations] with ELDs. … Once we get to the point where every commercial vehicle is equipped with an ELD, I don’t see how the violations won’t decrease.”

For an independent with one truck or a small fleet of trucks concerned about hours violations, ELDs might be the best short-term tool toward eliminating problems, given the dynamic Thompson notes.

McKane, however, stresses that Oregon’s “most common hours violation is falsification of records of duty status. Some of these are drivers who don’t fill out a log book well. Others are drivers who are trying to squeeze in a few extra hours.”

His advice for carriers both large and small: “Ensure drivers understand how to complete a record of duty status, either paper or electronic.” And most importantly, he adds: “Be honest. It is very difficult to cheat with your log book today and not get caught. A good inspector has a readily available supply of data points to use to verify the validity of a log book.” McKane’s state records time and location of every truck weighing there. “That is just one data point used by Oregon and any other state that requests the data.”

More in this series:

How the potential gold mine of ELD data could hurt you

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