Picking on the bad apples

Updated Apr 5, 2010

FMCSA proposes to mandate recorders only for serious offenders on hours compliance. Does it go far enough to satisfy political pressure for more regulation?

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration last month proposed to mandate electronic onboard recorders (EOBRs) for motor carriers that display a pattern of violating the hours-of-service regulations, and it offered a couple of limited incentives in the form of regulatory and enforcement relief to encourage voluntary adoption.

FMCSA’s decision to mandate recorders only in situations where public safety dictated was based on the agency’s reviews, including a cost-benefit analysis, Administrator John Hill said at a Jan. 11 news conference in Washington, D.C. “Companies most likely to be a safety hazard on the road will be the focus. EOBRs will help ensure these important rules are followed.” FMCSA estimates that if its proposed rule were in effect today, about 930 motor carriers employing about 17,500 drivers would be subject to it. (For more on the costs and benefits, see “Are EOBRs justified?” page 56.)

The threshold for mandatory EOBRs would be a finding based on a review of hours-of-service records during each of two compliance reviews conducted within a two-year period that the carrier had a 10 percent or greater violation rate for any of the major hours-of-service regulations. Such carriers would be required to install EOBRs in all their commercial motor vehicles for a period of two years.

FMCSA plans to revamp the performance standards for EOBRs that would apply to devices installed either voluntarily or on a mandatory basis on trucks built on or after two years from the effective date of the final rule. Although motor carriers choosing to use onboard recorders would have to employ devices meeting these standards on trucks built after a certain date, they could continue to use existing devices until the trucks in which they are installed are retired. Current performance standards for onboard recorders, which numerous trucking fleets have chosen to use for managing compliance, date back to 1988 – long before widespread use of the Global Positioning System (GPS), wireless communications or even technologies for rapidly and reliably downloading data. (For more on performance standards, see “What’s the ringtone on your EOBR?” page 54.)

FMCSA also proposes several incentives for motor carriers to install EOBRs voluntarily, including revising the compliance review standards to permit examination of a random sample of drivers’ records of duty status and partial relief from HOS supporting documents requirements if certain conditions are met. “The goal is to get more trucks and buses using innovative safety technologies like onboard recorders that will improve safety on our nation’s roads,” Hill said.

Too far, not far enough?
The American Trucking Associations endorsed the proposed rule. “We are pleased that DOT has taken another solid step toward ensuring future gains in improved highway safety,” said Bill Graves, ATA president and chief executive officer. “We support this incentive-based approach to the use of electronic onboard recorders. Technology can play a significant role in enhancing road safety and help to ensure the reliability of commercial vehicle operation.”

ATA still suggests a pilot program that would determine the effectiveness of EOBRs in improving compliance and safety performance, while also addressing the industry’s diverse nature, Graves said. ATA also believes that incentives would assist motor carriers in adopting the technology.

ATA aside, FMCSA’s proposal fails to satisfy activists on either side of the EOBR debate. Public Citizen charged that FMCSA failed the public by releasing what it considers “a very weak standard for electronic onboard recorders.”

“FMCSA has squandered a real opportunity to protect the public,” said Public Citizen President Joan Claybrook, who charges that requiring recorders only for carriers caught significantly violating the rules doesn’t make sense given the efforts of drivers and carriers to avoid getting caught. “Under the FMCSA rule, these scofflaws can continue to violate the law without consequences and put the public at risk. These recorders should be mandated in an across-the-board standard that treats all companies equally,” she says.

Meanwhile, the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association argues that the EOBR proposal is a misdirected attempt to deal with the root causes of hours-of-service violations.

“The proposal