Onboard Debate

By Randy Grider
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If you think this year’s presidential election is by far the most heated topic you can bring up on the CB or over a cup of coffee at the truckstop, think again. The debate over the potential for onboard recorders is beginning to show signs of giving President George W. Bush and Sen. John Kerry a run for their money.

Just like the presidential election, there seems to be little common ground. You’re either for the so-called “black boxes” or against them. Some say recorders will be the downfall of trucking and the trucker lifestyle. Others claim they will cure the problems of the industry and add a sense of professionalism and respect to the term trucker. And both sides of the issue are passionate about their respective positions.

The latest debate comes on the heels of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s decision to explore the feasibility of onboard recorders in commercial trucks after an appeals court vacated the new hours-of-service rule. The court said the rule failed to address drivers’ health. It also cited the agency’s failure to consider onboard recorders to document compliance with the rule.

Proponents of onboard recorders point to greater safety, increased pay for drivers and better efficiency in the industry.

Owner-operator Mike Kimball says he thinks onboard recorders will create a level playing field. He believes the black boxes will force companies to raise freight rates and driver wages while weeding out bad drivers and unscrupulous companies that put pressure on drivers to break the law. Another added bonus is recorders will be a valuable witness against frivolous lawsuits. Kimball adds, “My one concern is this: who pays for the installation and how much will it cost me?”

T.J. Graff, a company driver for Marten Transport, also supports onboard recorders, as well as annual salaries for over-the-road drivers. He feels onboard recorders will force consolidation, therefore easing the “driver shortage.”

“I think it will result in greater efficiency in the trucking industry,” he says.

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While most trucks made today have some sort of data recording device built in, it’s the incorporation of paperless logs that will be the main focus of any future onboard recorders and hours of service. Werner Enterprises has been using electronic logs for some time along with an electronic system for measuring performance.

“It keeps me and the company honest,” says Raemonn Robe who has driven for Werner for 15 years. “It makes my job easier; when it’s incorporated with the paperless log system we use, our time is managed more efficiently. I wouldn’t run a truck without one.”

Opponents of onboard recorders say the devices will fail to live up to safety claims, can be circumvented, but worst of all, will put Big Brother in the cab. “I find them a ridiculous waste of time and money for a truck,” says owner-operator Bob Cassan. He feels the drivers’ wages may only increase marginally – just enough to keep drivers in the truck seats.

As for safety, Cassan says onboard recorders cannot replace education and experience. “Black boxes, like seat belts, are an excuse for a lack of driving ability and education,” he says. ”