Avery Vise: Mandating the inevitable

Updated Apr 28, 2012

Mandating the inevitable

AveryElectronic logs may be universal before they are required

About a decade ago, a major supplier of onboard computers primarily to private fleets scheduled a press conference at a Truckload Carriers Association annual meeting to tout its electronic logs. The event proved to be a bust. First, company executives sheepishly admitted that they had learned just days before the convention that truckload carriers generally weren’t big fans of the concept; they then spent just a few minutes describing a product they repeatedly conceded the target market didn’t want.

Since Frito-Lay first received permission 25 years ago to maintain logs electronically, private fleets have been the principal customers for the technology. With a few exceptions – notably Werner Enterprises, which actively promoted its paperless logs in the late 1990s – truckload carriers a decade ago simply didn’t want to track hours-of-service compliance electronically.

Most drivers, of course, just plain hated the idea. The devices also cost money. And perhaps most of all, electronic logs were – to put it delicately – inflexible and unforgiving in tracking a driver’s work day, leading to lost productivity. A few for-hire carriers used electronic logs, but most probably did so only to avoid or mitigate enforcement action by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. Technology providers knew the subject was taboo in conversations with for-hire carriers – unless the customer broached the topic first.

Attitudes have shifted gradually in recent years. By the mid-2000s, electronic onboard recorders (EOBRs) looked inevitable. FMCSA already had proposed to mandate them once, and a federal appeals court suggested that the agency might want to rethink its decision not to require them after all. Congress, too, began looking at a possible mandate. With government prodding and the trucking industry’s public image on the line, the American Trucking Associations conditionally endorsed EOBRs in 2005. It didn’t hurt that some major trucking companies wanted universal EOBRs as a way of driving scofflaws and their price-lowering capacity out of business.

CSA 2010 should seal the deal.

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Meanwhile, EOBR costs dropped, especially for add-on applications for existing fleet management systems. If a fleet owner already has in-cab communications, the cost of electronic logging almost can be negligible.

But if you don’t want something, it hardly matters that it is free. Few trucking companies rushed to adopt EOBRs, but some have. A few carriers implemented electronic logs to reduce the costs of buying, handling and processing paper logs. Others have benefitted by integrating hours-of-service compliance into dispatch systems to maximize driver productivity. And of course, some carriers simply want to run a more compliant operation.

The dynamics have changed in the past couple of years, however. On Christmas Eve 2008, FMCSA declared that data from advanced technologies, such as systems that use the Global Positioning System (GPS) for vehicle location, are supporting documents for verifying driver logs. Some carrier executives, like Prime’s Robert Low, view that policy as a “de facto mandate” for electronic logs.

If the GPS policy isn’t enough to send carriers running for EOBRs, FMCSA’s Comprehensive Safety Analysis 2010 should do the trick. By December, the agency plans to switch to its new Carrier Safety Measurement System and escalating intervention process. No longer can carriers just hope they won’t be one of the tiny fraction of carriers targeted for an audit in any given year. At least in theory, FMCSA will contact them early and often and eventually – after an upcoming rulemaking – assign them a safety rating every 30 days based on roadside inspection and crash data. Tighter enforcement calls for tighter management, including tools like EOBRs.

FMCSA plans to follow its new rule mandating EOBRs for serious hours-of-service violators with a rule requiring more carriers to use them. By the time the agency completes that rule, however, most trucking companies that have survived the additional scrutiny of CSA 2010 likely will be using electronic logs already. Eventually, a universal mandate will be necessary to force the most stubborn operators to convert, but fear alone should be enough for most. n

Avery vise is Editorial Director of Commercial Carrier Journal.

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