Paper Cut

Many electronic log users say the devices are making life easier, but others anticipate the annoying sting of Big Brother

May Trucking driver and trainer Chris Bigbey says the electronic logging device in his 2010 truck makes his life easier and gives him more time to work with entry-level drivers. Tom Williams, a May driver orientation instructor, adds that the onboard recorder has reduced the amount of training devoted to hours of service.

Independent owner-operator Howard Salmon sees it differently. “I don’t want to be limited to speed or time or where I am or having someone looking at me constantly,” he says.

Koch & Sons Trucking driver Marshall Platter has experienced positives and negatives from using two electronic logging systems at two carriers in the past year and a half. On the downside, he had to stop twice within minutes of his home because he ran out of hours. On the positive side, the EOBR will do a legal split sleeper berth maneuver, something, he says, he was unable to do successfully most of the time with paper logs.

For many truckers whose carriers have installed electronic onboard recorders, the move relieves them of the chore of filling in paper logbooks and helps them concentrate more on their driving. Yet others, particularly owner-operators, view the device as an unnecessary expense, an invader of their privacy and unproven in helping improve trucking safety.

At the same time, a growing number of carriers are making the commitment and installing the device, often as an add-on to an existing truck communication system. Hundreds of thousands of EOBRs are in operation and thousands more are being added monthly, device suppliers say.

In some cases, carriers are installing the recorders in anticipation of an industry-wide mandate many observers predict is coming. In a federal rule that takes effect in 2012, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration has mandated EOBRs for violation-prone carriers. Already, the agency has demanded some unsafe companies to equip their fleets with EOBRs, and more such actions are anticipated as the Compliance, Safety, Accountability program revs up this year.

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EOBR pros

Dave Osiecki, senior vice president for regulatory affairs with the American Trucking Associations, says EOBRs enhance compliance for those operators “who may be fudging around the edges” by not accurately filling out their logbooks.

“I hated it when I first got it. But now I’ve got to the point where I’m pretty much used to it. It’s going to get mandated at some point in the near future.”

— Marshall Platter, driver for Koch & Sons Trucking

“Law enforcement looks at things like duty status and number of hours for drivers,” says Bob Viso, vice president of safety at U.S. Xpress, which has been testing an electronic logging system and aims to have all 6,000 of its drivers on it by the end of 2011. “The system will help drivers comply with those pieces.”

Since an EOBR defines the driver’s hours, it removes the option of pushing for more miles. “I’ve gotten feedback from drivers that it reduces their stress,” says Don Osterberg, vice president of safety at Schneider National. “When a driver is out of hours, he’s out of hours and needs to shut down. It’s a definitive end point to their day.”

Compliance is also improved by eliminating mistakes, such as noting the wrong city and state or shipping numbers, Osiecki says. “They reduce paperwork and the hassle of keeping up with the details of writing things in the logs.”

Osterberg says errors are common in paper logs, an issue that often comes into play when a truck is involved in an accident. “The level of precision that’s expected — especially in truck litigation following a crash — really defies use of a paper log,” he says. “Show me any paper log, and I will find something wrong with it.”

U.S. Xpress anticipates EOBRs will help drivers and dispatchers plan more effectively, which will lead to improved productivity. The dispatcher or operations planner can better match loads with drivers who have available hours. “It provides our operations department with more knowledge,” Viso says.

May Trucking driver Chris Bigbey demonstrates access on his onboard logging device.

Before May Trucking went live with its EOBR system in July 2010, it did additional programming to provide real-time information on drivers and their hours to its load planners. Now driver managers can view the status of each driver on their monitors. “You have full visibility, so if you have a guy who’s going to be coming out of his sleeper berth in three hours, we know that at the load planning desk,” says Brad Weatherman, May’s vice president of operations.

Expedited travel through weigh stations is another advantage, says Platter, who’s only been asked once to show his electronic log at a weigh station since he’s had it. “This one guy, the very first thing he did was to see the load information and wanted to make sure I had the correct trailer number and bill of lading number,” he says. “That’s one of the things that caught many drivers on their paper logs.”

Recorder cons

While carriers identify compliance and operational benefits from employing electronic logs, critics contend that EOBRs fail as a tool to enhance safety. Improved trucker safety from using EOBRs hasn’t been proven, says Todd Spencer, executive vice president of the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, which has filed suit against FMCSA’s authority to mandate EOBRs for motor carriers that have a poor compliance record on hours-of-service rules.

“I’ve gotten feedback from drivers that it reduces their stress. When a driver is out of hours, he’s out of hours and needs to shut down. It’s a definitive end point to their day.”

— Don Osterberg, vice president of safety, Schneider National

“They are not safer carriers,” Spencer says about some of the carriers using EOBRs. “In some instances they are far less safe than their peers. The correlation between usage and improved safety is poppycock.”

Spencer notes that trucking experienced its safest year based on number of deaths and crashes in 2009. He says driver training and experience contribute more to trucking safety than technology. “The notion that equipment and technology is going to have any measurable impact on safety is marketing or [nonsense],” he says.

“None of the technology will tell when a driver is sleepy and needs to stop and rest,” Spencer adds. “The technology is used in too many instances to pressure the drivers to drive when they may be sleepy and have hours left. The company wants to know why that truck’s not moving.”

Salmon concurs on this view, calling it his chief concern with the use of EOBRs.

Platter, too, agrees that EOBRs don’t enhance driver safety. “It doesn’t affect true hours of duty. It doesn’t reflect the reality of [truckers] working on the docks,” which often isn’t counted as on-duty time.

“The correlation between [electronic on-board recorder] usage and improved safety is poppycock.”

— Todd Spencer, executive vice president, OOIDA

Daniel Murray, vice president of research at the American Transportation Research Institute, acknowledges the correlation between electronic recorders and safety and crash reduction management is weak. He says a 2007 survey showed the fleets were more interested in adopting EOBR technology for compliance, not safety management. “That doesn’t mean people were saying that EOBRs would manage fatigue and reduce crashes,” he says. “They view it simply as a compliance tool.”

Osterberg says the rigidity of electronic log measurements compared with paper logs will have an indirect impact on safety. “The net effect will be an improvement in safety,” he says. “It will improve driver quality of life because it’s easier, and it will take a lot of the regulatory noncompliance issues off the table.”

Scott Smith, vice president at May Trucking, bluntly says EOBRs won’t improve a company’s safety performance. “If you’re using EOBR as a tool to improve safety, you’re going to have issues,” he says. “You’re going to be compliant or not. You’re going to run your fleet in a certain way. That’s where the safety factor comes into play.”

Trucking operators, especially independents, are concerned about EOBR cost. While some carriers that have mandated EOBRs for their fleets have borne the expense of installing the equipment and monthly service fees for their leased contractors, others have had to pick up the cost or a portion of it themselves. That could be a major factor if a universal mandate is enacted. “Why do I have to pay for something new when I know my company works just fine [without it]?” Salmon says. “If I’m made to do it, they better have a better way to do it and pay for it or assist in paying for it.”

Relatively low-cost options do exist, including devices accessed through mobile handsets, such as Xata Turnpike Corp.’s RouteTracker solution, which meets FMCSA’s technical requirements for a compliant product for just the cost of a monthly service fee of about $35. The costs for the multifunction systems most fleets are using start at around $900 with a monthly fee of $35 or more for cellular service and can climb to more than $2,000. Leased operators who already have a Qualcomm or PeopleNet system could add an electronic log component for a monthly charge of $45 or less.

A few owner-operators regard EOBRs as a threat to their privacy. “We’re going to be looked at under the microscope in ever more detail,” Salmon says.

Osiecki doesn’t buy that argument. He says it would be a problem if the devices captured more data about the driver that wasn’t protected. “Government isn’t interested in taking a Big Brother approach — only the movement from a paper log to an electronic log,” he says. “If it’s in the context of safety, everyone should be in favor of that.”

Mandate or not

Whether the EOBR question ends up as a mandate is on everyone’s mind.

Driver checking information on Xata Turnpike handheld device.

“Companies realize this is coming,” says Christian Schenk, Xata’s vice president of product marketing. “Fleets don’t know where they’re going to fit in [under CSA]. It’s been mandatory for 30 years in Europe. I see it becoming mandatory here maybe in 36 to 60 months,” after the trucking industry and regulators have had time to adjust to CSA.

Pat Quinn, co-chairman and president of U.S. Xpress, is a member of a coalition of carriers that is supporting legislation to mandate EOBRs for the entire industry. He says the major reason for supporting a mandate is the public perception of trucking safety. “In most surveys people believe that truckers do not abide by DOT rules and regulations as they pertain to hours of service,” he says. “This will level the playing field and assure the general public that a much greater percentage of truckers are compliant.”

PeopleNet’s safety and compliance product manager Jim Angel foresees a stepped approach to requiring EOBRs, beginning with a possible mandate for motor coach and hazmat load carriers this year. An overall transportation bill by 2014 could carry a mandate. “[FMCSA Administrator] Anne Ferro says the industry and government feel this is the direction we need to go,” Angel says.

ATA’s Osiecki foresees a mandate proposal perhaps by the end of this year. The hurdle could be the absence of data to show a mandate would be cost-effective for the industry. Government agencies are obligated to evaluate and show the costs and benefits of their regulations. “In the past they couldn’t get close to a mandate passing the cost/benefit test,” he says. “That may still be the case with FMCSA. Congress at some point may step in and say, ‘You’ve got to do it.’”

OOIDA opposes a mandate. Spencer says certain Congress members support a mandate, as do several large carriers that want “to level the playing field. All they’re really interested in is saddling their competition, their small business competitors, with increased costs and regulatory burdens,” he says. “We have no issue with any carrier that wants to use them — that’s between them and their drivers. But trying to mandate what everyone else should do — forget about it.”

Q. What do you think of electronic onboard recorders?

They intrude on privacy and work — 66%

They save time and help with compliance — 25%

I don’t know much about them — 9%

Source: poll, 169 responses


Recorders in Europe

Europe has used types of onboard recorders for far longer and in ways not yet dreamed about in the U.S.

The first mechanical tachograph, outfitted with a stylus that plotted speeds over a 24-hour period on a paper graph, was introduced to commercial transportation in the 1950s. A decade later, countries led by Germany and then France began requiring them. In the 1980s, the tachograph was made mandatory on commercial trucks by the European transportation board, followed by the European Union. In the ’90s countries began using the devices to enforce trucker speeding.

Tampering problems with mechanical tachographs led to development of an electronic version, which was linked to chip card technology similar to what’s employed in the banking industry. Truckers were issued cards similar to a driver’s license with an embedded chip that contained the data recorded by the tachograph. If the driver is stopped by police, the card is inserted into a terminal to download information. The card is also an identification tool that enables only the driver to start his vehicle.

“In Europe and even in Canada, in the event of an accident or roadside stop for speeding, the driver knows to pull out his card and have the police officer sign it,” says Christian Schenk, of Xata Corp., whose father owned the company that introduced tachographs to North America. “In the U.S., it was never adopted. It was more of an accountability tool than an hours tool [in Europe]. It was more about saving fuel and ensuring your drivers weren’t going for a two-hour nap on the clock.”

In 2007, first in Germany followed by other countries, Europe began a project to integrate the electronic tachograph with electronic toll collection. As the driver passes over digitally mapped roads, tolls and fuel taxes are charged automatically in real time.

When the tachographs were introduced in Europe, “drivers were furious,” Schenk says. “Regulatory scrutiny in Europe is 10 times what it is here in the United States and 10 times what CSA will be when fully implemented. It’s like Big Brother’s with you all the time.”

Mexico implemented digital tachographs in the mid-1990s only for certain operators, such as hazmat carriers, oversize or overweight load haulers or truckers with a poor driving history. “They haven’t taken it to the level as in Europe,” Schenk says.

What drivers say

“I didn’t think I would like it because of all the horror stories. But a lot of what you hear is just garbage. … Before, you didn’t have to think much about hours and mileage. Now you have to think about it a lot more. If you’re driving legal, it’s very little change. But if you had double or triple logs, it will bite you in the butt.”

— Stephen Michaels, company driver for Central Refrigerated, who’s been driving since 2006

“I touch the screen and push a couple of buttons, and it does the rest for me. It calculates everything for you and you don’t make any mistakes. Getting used to it at first was a little scary. Every now and then the only problem is to get some customers to understand we need to get the trucks in and out because it will affect your driving time for the day.”

— Randy Earl, company driver for 21 years at U.S. Xpress

Electronic recorder timeline

1950s — First mechanical tachograph used in commercial vehicles in Europe.

1977 — National Transportation Safety Board made recommendation to Federal Highway Administration for use of onboard recording devices for commercial vehicle hours-of-service compliance.

1988 — Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration first allowed use of automatic onboard recording devices to track commercial drivers’ hours of service.

1990 — NTSB recommended FHWA to mandate use of onboard recorders, repeating the recommendation in subsequent years.

2007 — FMCSA proposes EOBR mandate for carriers with serious noncompliance problems.

2012 — FMCSA’s 2007 rule to take effect.

What drivers say

“I was wondering if I was going to be handcuffed or restricted. There’s a learning process in the beginning. Once you get used to it and see the simplicity of it and ease of use, you become almost spoiled. It makes it so easy. In the van truckload long-haul that I do, I find there is very little restriction it puts on me. It will make you look ahead more, which is good.”

— Sam Mobley, owner-operator, leased to Schneider National

“The biggest benefit is it keeps everybody honest. It saves me a lot of time and my miles have jumped up. Before an EOBR I was averaging 2,700-2,800 miles weekly. When they first put in my unit, I went above 3,000 miles. I am saving 7-8 minutes here and there with the electronic log. At the end of the week, it was saving me four to five hours, plus the convenience of it is a big factor.”

— Stephen Adams, company driver for May Trucking and a trucker since 2006