‘E-logs will cure everything, right?’

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Kris Santoianni 2017 12 22 08 06

The 315-inch wheelbase 1999 Peterbilt 379 above was stretched and otherwise modified (straight pipes, double-round headlights, drop visor, and more) by Cy Kellogg, its owner, who’s one of the mechanics of the “Garage Squad” television show on the Velocity Channel. It’s driven today, however, by Chi-Town Large Cars President and Cofounder Kris Santoianni, who runs it with something akin to the pride of ownership I know many of you will no doubt find familiar. (The unit is leased to Nelson Truck Lines out of Manitowoc, Wis.)

I talked with Santoianni yesterday. He was “sitting at the truck wash. I’m five minutes from my house” in Lowell, Ind., he said, with “no time to stop – it was either go home for a minute or get the truck washed.” The truck in this case took precedence, given it’d been two weeks since it’d gotten a bath. Santoianni typically washes her once a week.

He was fresh out of a trip through a set of scales in Minnesota the previous day, where his ELD-exempt operation had gotten the full treatment from an inspector, which he narrated in a Facebook post to both his personal page and the ELD or Me group.

Yesterday, I pulled onto the scale in Lakeland, Minn. DOT officer walks out, and immediately asks if I have e-logs? “No. She’s a ’99.” He looks shocked. He tells me I’m 900 pounds over on the wagon (pulling a van yesterday) and to pull around back. After doing level 2 on truck, scale master dissected through last 30 days of logs. Yes, I said 30. What does he say?

“Overall I’m really impressed with your log and the shape of your old truck. Not often can I not find something wrong on a truck that old. You’ve obviously been doing this a while.”

My reply: “21 years next week, sir.” His comment made me realize that they know what experience looks like. It looks like pride. A well-maintained log book. A well-maintained truck. An overall well-maintained appearance. The old-school way.

Oddly enough, the guy next to me is telling the other scale master, “I know it says I was in violation but I had to find a safe place to park! Do you want me to sleep in the center lane?! The truck stops were full! These computers have no idea what is going on! This is ridiculous!”

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Yeah, don’t worry. E-logs will cure everything, right?

Minnesota is among states leaving it up to the discretion of the officer on whether or not to scratch out a ticket for not having an ELD in a truck covered under the ELD mandate. The hours of service remain what they are, of course, the overheard driver’s situation in Santoianni’s anecdote being one that I know every driver pondering a switch to e-logs has worried about — inability to find a suitable parking space or other unforeseen circumstance forcing you into violation, something to then be cherry-picked down the line by an officer.

What advice the federal government and some state officials have given for circumstances such as that — log it like it happened, annotate the log describing the circumstances and hope for leniency if an officer asks about it— is inadequate to address drivers’ very real and appropriate concerns about their professional records. Those hours-compliance records, as operators from Santoianni to Gary Buchs in Tuesday’s podcast have pointed out, are now certainly more dependent on the whims of shippers and receivers, on the availability of parking (as in the example above), and the understanding (or not so) nature of individual inspectors.

Santoianni elaborated a little on the overheard driver’s situation in our conversation yesterday. Though he can’t swear it, he suspects the driver walked out of the exchange with a ticket. “His ELD was in order, but it was a heated conversation” over the hours violation, Santoianni says. “And it seemed like it happened a couple days back.” He paraphrases the driver: “I went through three truck stops and there was no parking – I had to find a safe parking spot”  And the inspector: “It still says you’re in violation. It says right here you’re in violation.”

When it comes to such situations, Santoianni says, and I would agree, “there has to be a common-sense gray area – what are you supposed to do?” (The heated nature of the overheard conversation probably didn’t help matters — an inspector once told me something along the lines of “a driver can certainly talk himself into a violation,” for what that’s worth.)

FMCSA reps have more or less expressed the same kinds of sentiment in their encouragement of state partners to take a gray-areas leniency approach, yet the law is the law, and it all fails to account for the emotion that is generated by such encounters on both enforcement and truckers’ sides. “Thank god I didn’t have that guy,” Santoianni says of the overheard driver’s inspector.

Guidance, perhaps, on greater hours leeway for special circumstances than exists could be the answer, though there is also a sense that more clear-cut definitions could present more problems than they solve in the end, leaving even less room for that common sense many see as not so common anymore. Which reminds me of Lieutenant Thomas Fitzgerald’s response to my query about Massachusetts’ enforcement policy around ELD-specific violations: “I hope common sense prevails. There is going to be a learning curve for drivers and officers.”

Hope mightn’t be much to hang your business’ future-success hat on, of course. As for Santoianni, he takes special affront to this aspect of mandated electronic logging devices. “Drivers go through different states every day – how can you keep [enforcement] uniform?” he asks. “If it’s not, then that puts the stress on the driver” wondering whether the hours violation his ELD recorded days ago while he was looking for parking is going to net him a citation. “You go to the truck stops and they’re jam-packed after 5 o’clock at night. It’s bad enough that common sense isn’t so common today, but this is making it all  that much worse. … Guys like us who’ve been trucking a long time and still take pride in what we do – we feel like they’re trying to chase us out” — rather than deal with such headaches, he’s heard a lot about friends in trucking looking around for local opportunities where logs aren’t an issue, or just going out to find something else to do altogether.

He’s lucky, he says, with the exempt truck and shipper/receiver customers that are familiar day in and day out, many offering opportunities to park on-premise if timing goes haywire. “A lot of guys don’t have that,” he adds. With the rules the way they are, it feels to them like regulators are “chasing truckers out of trucking to make room for the guys who don’t know any better.”

ELD-specific enforcement
I also spoke yesterday with Wyoming-headquartered small tanker fleet owner-operator Mintu Pandher, none of whose nine late model Peterbilt 389s are yet outfitted with ELDs (though a few are exempt gliders). His drivers run six states around his home state, and he says no tickets (citations) have been written to any as yet for not having an ELD.

That squares with what most of my law-enforcement contacts over the last couple weeks have noted about soft enforcement in the early going. Access a list I’m continuing to update near the bottom of the post at this link that shows states where officer discretion will dictate ticket/citation-writing activity or where a blanket policy not to write tickets for not having an ELD is in place (typically through April 1, when out-of-service criteria for ELD-related violations are set to come into play).

According to a story in Land Line, the magazine of the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, OOIDA has established an email address to which operators can send any tickets they do receive. According to the piece, it’s part of an effort to “ensure enforcement of the mandate is consistent on a state-by-state basis.” You can read the brief here.