Getting onboard

Randy Grider
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Anytime I write about electronic onboard recorders I get mail and angry phone calls from readers who are passionately opposed to Big Brother in their cabs. I also get a few correspondents who think EOBRs eventually could offer solutions for drivers in a problematic system.

I understand both sides of the issue. The biggest fear is that data from EOBRs could be used for more than hours-of-service compliance, i.e. accident litigation by greedy lawyers or speeding enforcement. Some protest on the grounds that it’s an invasion of privacy. They don’t want their company to know where they are or what they are doing every second of the day. Others view it as a freedom issue. They got into trucking because they don’t like the feeling of someone looking over their shoulder at every turn.

Truckers who are proponents of EOBRs foresee changes in the industry. The pressure put on drivers to deliver so-called “hot loads,” which have to be there yesterday, would be cooled by EOBR monitoring.

In the past few months, many politicos and trucking organizations opposed to the cross-border program have raised the red flag of compromised safety. They’ve said that the American motoring public would have no idea how long Mexican drivers participating in the program have been behind the wheel when they reach the U.S. border, despite the fact that Mexican drivers – like their U.S. counterparts – must keep a log book showing their hours of service on both sides of the border.

But the opponents are right. We don’t know how long Mexican drivers have been driving, because when you get right down to it, paper logs are based on an honor system. It’s up to the law enforcement officer at the scale house or on the side of the highway to decide if the driver is being honest or deceptive. Usually the only way to know for sure whether the driver is telling the truth or lying is by following the paper trail when something happens – like an accident.

To squelch some of the criticism, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration announced a few months ago that GPS tracking would be used on all trucks taking part in the program to ensure compliance.

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But what about American truckers? Is their ability to do math and keep good books far superior to that of Mexican drivers? Are we saying that all Mexican drivers are prone to being liars and cheats? I hope not.

I prefer to think we accidentally gave credibility to the argument that paper logs lack credibility. Am I saying that all truckers fudge their log books? Absolutely not. But the argument used against Mexican drivers shows how vulnerable the current log system really is.

One may argue that if paper logs are so vulnerable, why not just do away with them altogether? After all, people who are determined to cheat on their logs will do so. That’s why so many drivers refer to them as comic books. I think until a better solution comes along, log books have a purpose. If nothing else, they help keep honest people honest.

But the writing is on the wall. Eventually, industry-wide EOBRs will become a reality. There is more and more pressure to follow the handful of carriers already using paperless logs. In December, the National Transportation Safety Board recommended that FMCSA make EOBRs mandatory for all interstate carriers – not just the worst hours-of-service offenders, as FMCSA has proposed. And groups like Public Citizen are not going to give up on the push to make EOBRs mandatory.

The trucking industry needs to be proactive in implementing and setting the parameters for EOBRs for hours-of-service compliance. Phasing in will have to be done in a workable and economical manner. If not, the industry could wake up one day to find itself equipped with a technological and regulatory headache much worse than the one already pounding away in the heads of drivers under hot loads and shoved up against the rigid end of the 14-hour window. Rather than resign itself to riding with someone else’s solution, trucking would be better off trying to control its own fate.