Critics of recorder proposal get recorded

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Updated Apr 5, 2010

It was billed as a “listening session,” and Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration officials got an earful Monday, March 12, as a parade of speakers denounced the agency for not universally mandating electronic onboard recorders for heavy trucks.

In the daylong meeting at U.S. Department of Transportation headquarters in Washington, D.C., the agency’s proposal to require recorders only for fleets with a history of serious hours-of-service violations was called “inexplicable,” “incredible,” “irresponsible,” “another failed effort,” a “travesty,” “utterly ludicrous” and “utterly contemptuous.” All the barbs were faithfully transcribed by a court reporter for the public docket, and all the critics were politely thanked as they sat down.

“We understand that this issue is a contentious one,” said the FMCSA’s Deborah Freund at the beginning of the session, as a fire siren went off at Engine Company No. 13 across the street. “Our participants should not feel compelled to resolve their differences during the meeting.”

But the participants turned out to have few differences, except with the FMCSA. Of the 14 presenters who signed up in advance, 11 represented groups involved in the four-day “Sorrow To Strength” conference, a Washington gathering of truck-safety activists that coincided with the FMCSA meeting.

One speaker represented Public Citizen, one speaker represented Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, and nine speakers, including Parents Against Tired Truckers founders Daphne and Steve Izer, were relatives of people killed in large-truck crashes.

Many of the survivors held up photos of their deceased loved ones. One, Mary Harner of Rio Rancho, N.M., held up a freezer bag containing burnt scraps – all that remained, she said, of her late husband’s personal effects.

The survivors all emphasized the need for all trucks to have recorders. Survivor Jim VanDyke of Saugatuck, Mich., quoted Larry the Cable Guy: “As they say, ‘Git-r-done.'”

Survivor Linda Wilburn of Weatherford, Okla., however, acknowledged that the truck that killed her son in 2002 actually had such a device – used by the fleet “just to show where their precious freight was,” not to track hours.

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The remaining scheduled presenters represented the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and two potential recorder vendors.

Jerry Gabbard, a vice president at Siemens VDO, said he found it “somewhat astounding” that the United States, alone among industrialized nations, does not mandate some form of onboard recorder for heavy trucks. In Europe, such devices have been mandated since 1972, he said.

He derided paper logbooks as “comic books” and said that while electronic logbooks are much superior, they still can be falsified. “This rule needs to consider the issue of tampering,” Gabbard said. He also urged the FMCSA to consider the standardization of devices and formats and how to “address drivers who move from truck to truck during the course of the day.”

“It’s a nice step, a good, positive step that we’re addressing this issue,” Gabbard added, in one of the day’s few complimentary remarks.

Brad Larschan, chief executive officer of Report On Board, said his Memphis, Tenn., company has shelved the release of its fully compliant $500-per-unit recorder because the lack of a universal FMCSA mandate means it won’t sell.

“There is no reason to believe truck fleets will voluntarily and widely accept EOBRs,” Larschan said. The reason, he argued, is that “Fleets believe they are fundamentally and competitively disadvantaged by using EOBRs absent a mandate.”

Fleets want a cheap, universal compliance device, not a costly fleet-management system like the one assumed by FMCSA in its notice, Larschan said. He called the Report On Board device “nothing more than a cell phone with some added memory and other devices.” Just as the price of cell phones has plummeted with their spread, so would the price of recorders plummet if they were to spread throughout the industry, Larschan said.

FMCSA did a great job of “bringing most stakeholders to the point of accepting the inevitability of an across-the-board EOBR mandate,” but failed to follow through, Larschan said. He quoted 19th-century British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli: “I must follow the people. Am I not their leader?”

The safety groups were harsher in their assessments.

“This debate has gone on long enough,” said Lena Pons, policy analyst at Public Citizen. The “rampant falsification” of logbooks is both a safety issue and a labor issue, contributing to “the longstanding exploitation of interstate truck drivers,” Pons said.

“Cost is not the primary objection to EOBRs,” Pons said. Rather, fleets object to them because they would force compliance with the law, she said.

“FMCSA’s inconsistency on this issue is irresponsible,” Pons said. FMCSA “inexplicably” claims there’s not enough data, ignoring the 35 years of data generated in Europe, Pons said. “The health and safety of all Americans is at stake.”

The proposal is “another failed effort to reduce the serious problem of truck-driver fatigue,” said Anne McCartt, vice president for research at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. She went on to call it “a travesty” that displayed the agency’s “complete lack of leadership” and questioned whether it “would be better than no rule at all.”

“Is this the best that our government can do?” McCartt asked. Cars now can parallel-park themselves, and iPods now can carry 20,000 recorded songs, yet we pretend an affordable onboard recorder is impossible, McCartt said. “It is past the time for research. It is past the time for pilot programs.