A new electronic logging rule could drive independent truckers off the road

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The following op-ed was co-authored by Forrest Lucas, the founder of Lucas Oil Products.


A new rule proposed by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration would require all over-the-road freight carriers to hook up electronic monitors to replace the written duty logs truckers have maintained for decades on their hours of service. Like many federal mandates, this rule, set to go into effect Dec. 18, lacks commonsense exemptions for many of the things truckers experience in real life that are not contemplated by one-size-fits-all bureaucratic dictums.

Paper logs, very similar to those first developed in the 1930s, allow drivers the freedom to eat when they want, sleep when they want and drive when they want. They initially were made at the behest of the then-newly formed International Brotherhood of Teamsters to keep track of hours worked and make sure drivers were not overworked.

With mandatory electronic logging devices (ELDs), these freedoms will be gone and a lot of older, best qualified drivers will go, as well. You can’t replace all those vets with trainees without experiencing some problems.

The electronic system does not allow any forgiveness. If traffic delays render a driver “out of time” — even if they are just one minute away from a terminal — he or she must stop right there or risk committing a violation. There is also the omnipresent issue of not enough rest stops on major highways, which needs to be addressed separately. These are the sorts of concerns Washington regulators don’t see, because they are not out driving those big rigs.

Companies that use ELDs report a five to 10 percent decline in capacity. That sort of shift will make it much more difficult for smaller fleets to compete effectively with larger fleets, which may explain why the American Truckers Association supports the rule change, but independent truckers so not. The biggest impact the ELDs will have on small fleets and owner-operators is the pure aggravation of having less time at home and less money in their pockets.

A 2014 poll found that 71 percent of independent truckers and 52 percent of leased owner-operators and company drivers said they would be tempted to quit if ELDs were made mandatory. Even if no drivers quit, mandatory ELDs would put independent truckers in a position in which they could not move all of their freight, simply because the average driver would not be able to move as much freight using ELDs as they are accustomed to. Freight rates will rise, as there are bound to be bidding wars by companies trying to get their goods delivered.

There also is a serious concern about industrial espionage and sabotage. It is obvious that if the secretary of Homeland Security’s cell phone can be hacked, there is an ever-growing risk of malicious attacks on any digital system. The concern that software could be altered or subject to manipulation by third parties is shared by designers of autonomous vehicles. A multi-billion dollar industry that feeds sensitive data to a federal agency is a perfect target for extortionary “greenmail” ransom. A production line or an entire factory could be shut down if hackers were to alter the electronic clocks of just a few trucks — particularly those carrying just-in-time inventory parts as freight — to show their allowed driving time has expired.

One thing that might be considered, as used elsewhere, is a broad-based independent commission that receives input from voices outside of the “iron triangle” of large industry players, regulators and congressional committees. New ELDs will have to be designed to allow a driver to eat when he is hungry, sleep when he is sleepy and, within reason, drive when he wants to drive.

Enforcement also will prove especially thorny. Roughly half the states have not yet adopted rules to train law enforcement to put a truck showing expired hours out of service for the required time period. Until there is enough experience with the systems and with the enforcement structure, it makes no sense to mandate a new regulatory regime.

The federal government suggests the new rules will improve safety, predicting they will lead to an average of 26 fatalities and 562 injuries avoided every year. But government regulators don’t have a great track record when it comes to predictions, and requiring drivers to scramble to avoid shutdowns could actually compromise safety.

It is estimated that the ELD rule could add $2 billion in operating expense for the industry. That’s enough that it could put many of the 150,000 owner-operator independent truckers out of business. Congress should do what 14 trade associations have asked and pass legislation to delay the rule for two years.


Image by bbernard

 

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