September/October 2015 Issue
A federal requirement for electronic logging devices
to replace paper logbooks is expected this fall,
and while many trucking companies have already
implemented the devices, some in the industry are skeptical.
Photography courtesy of Maverick Transportation
and Dedicated Logistics LLC
Top photo: Driver Safety and Accountability – Electronic logging devices provide more reliability in the trucking industry.
Some 2.4 million tractor-trailers circulate like lifeblood along our nation’s roadways each year, keeping the national economy humming along. If the nearly 100 billion miles these trucks log each year were extended into space, it would reach beyond our solar system. However, all of this driving, much of it at high speed, creates safety concerns.
There are regulations on how long drivers may go without rest. Traditionally, drivers have tracked their time via an honor system, filling out paper logbooks that show their hours of service — time spent driving versus sleeping versus off duty. Today, tech-savvy carriers have equipped their trucks with electronic logging devices, or ELDs, which track the information automatically.
This fall, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration is expected to publish a mandate requiring all commercial trucks in the U.S. to be equipped with this technology.
This deathblow to paper logbooks may sound like an innocuous upgrade, an information-age replacement of an industrial-age business practice. But, it is a very big change for the industry, and its drivers, to swallow. To understand why, you have to know a not-so-secret matter related to paper logbooks: The industry has long considered them unreliable.
“Today we have a fair amount of drivers that are falsifying their logbooks in paper form,” said Stephen Keppler, executive director of the Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance, headquartered in Maryland. “So we’re hopeful that this new rule will help address that issue. … We think it will help with keeping data more accurate, more timely and available … and, ultimately, if we have an hours-of-service rule that is constructed properly, the [ELD] will help ensure compliance and will increase safety. That’s the ultimate bottom line. We think it will have positive safety impacts.”
Shannon Newton, president of the Arkansas Trucking Association, echoed Keppler’s support for the change. She said the inaccuracy of paper logbooks is “generally understood” within the industry. But she also emphasized that it’s not all the driver’s fault.
“[Paper logs] allow the driver flexibility … fudging one way or the other is certainly one of those items of flexibility,” she said. “But I think [a paper log] also puts the trucking company and the driver in the position where the shippers expect them to fudge. And so it’s somewhat of a problem that [the industry] helped create. For a very long time, the shipping community, receivers, expected if something is sent late, or something needs to be delivered early, that the driver could just make it happen. Get your eraser out, back [the logbook] up 30 minutes so you could go ahead and get the load that extra 50 miles that you don’t really have.”
Newton said that kind of pressure had become common on some routes. It will not be a problem when all trucks are equipped with ELD because those devices read the truck itself, whether it’s moving, which makes fudging much more difficult. Drivers at the limit of their available hours will have little choice but to stop. That will also give truckers some ability to push back against over-anxious shippers.
“In some ways, it helps us to defend the job that we’re actually doing,” Newton said. “If you want us to leave point A and be at point B, you can’t expect that to happen at a time that we can’t do legally.”
Cost of Doing Business
While the ATA has supported an ELD mandate since 1999, the rest of the industry has been slow to come around.
“People are change averse,” Newton said. “Their natural reaction is, ‘I don’t want someone else telling me how to do it. I don’t want to have to do it to the dot.’ And so it took awhile, took some education, took some getting used to. It took a couple of carriers testing it out for the general industry on a much larger scale to become comfortable with the idea… . Over that course of time [since 1999], the cost of that equipment dropped significantly. What used to be a $2,000 investment was now a $400 investment. And so the cost of compliance has gone down significantly as time has gone on and the technology has been out there, [becoming] more prevalent.”
When the ELD rule is announced, truckers will likely have a two-year window to become compliant. As things now stand, Newton estimates that at least half of the trucks on the road already have ELD.
“I hate to divide the industry by size, but [ELD use] does tend to fall largely along those lines,” she said. “The independent owner-operators, you would probably see very little use, unless they were leased on someone that required them to do so. Very small operators — 10, 15, 20 trucks — you’re probably not going to see a lot of it there. But then if you get into the larger fleets, they all have it in some capacity. Some have it 100 percent, every truck.”
While the ELD mandate appears to be a done deal, it will take some control away from drivers. So, it is not surprising that some in the industry still oppose it. Norita Taylor, spokesperson for the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, said an ELD mandate is something they have contested for years.
“It would not do what proponents are suggesting, which is automatically record hours of service,” Taylor said. While an ELD can report the location of a truck and whether it is moving, it does not automatically know the precise status of the driver, whether he or she is resting, off duty or stopped for bad weather, for example. And, she said, some drivers with ELD have complained of being harassed by the home office when they stop for any reason.
The bottom line, according to Taylor, is that an ELD mandate may raise costs for small trucking businesses while not improving roadway safety as advertised. Much will depend on the details of the final rule when it comes out, likely on Sept. 30. And, Taylor said the OOIDA has not ruled out mounting a legal challenge at that time.
Others in the industry, such as Alan Riels, president of Dedicated Logistics LLC, a Crossett-based freight carrier with a 50-truck fleet, have changed their opinion after converting to ELD.
“Just to be honest with you, I didn’t like the idea early on,” Riels said. “I felt like other people were managing our business. But after a period of time, I came to the realization that it was the right thing. So we did it … and would not go back.”
Dedicated Logistics began the switch to ELD in 2013.
“We spent a lot of time and money training our in-house operations guys, not just throwing [ELD] to the drivers and having them learn it,” Riels said.
And when they did go to the drivers, they began with a voluntary approach, as Dedicated Logistics safety manager Scott Richardson explained.
“What we did … starting in January , we told drivers that had come over from other shops that had been on e-logs before — we went ahead and told them we wanted to give it a try,” he said. “So we took a volunteer or two, and they would tell their buddy, ‘Hey, I’m still doing decent miles [with ELD],’ and so next thing I know we had more volunteers. By September of that year, something like 70 percent of our fleet had e-logs. So we went ahead and made a mandate that by the first month of 2014, we were going to make sure that every single driver was on e-logs. So it transitioned very well.”
The benefits of the new system soon became apparent.
“It’s helped us manage our time quite a bit better,” Riels said, “because what the drivers see on their screens in the truck is exactly the same thing we see here in our operations department. We know exactly how much available time that a driver hasn’t used that day. Therefore, it makes it easier to plan the next load and maybe even the next two loads.”
Richardson noted that it’s about more than keeping drivers off the road past their available hours. ELDs also alleviate the opposite problem.
“You’ve always had a certain segment of drivers that would use their hours of service to their benefit, too,” Richardson said. “Like they’re close to home and, all of a sudden, they don’t have as many hours and that sort of thing. Well now there’s no he said, she said. We see exactly what they have. … It really has helped alleviate a lot of that stress.”
Not having to deal with as much paper is another plus, according to Newton of ATA.
“If you use paper logs, you have to keep those,” she said. “You have to bundle them in and send them back to the office every Saturday, where they’re scanned in and graded or reviewed for compliance. And so that element of that information is being transmitted electronically. There is no mail-in, fax-in, stapling your logs to the back of a document and sending that in every week. The efficiencies are in the back office.”
There has been one competitive downside to Dedicated Logistics’ early adoption of ELD, according to Richardson. But that will go away as the new mandate is implemented.
“We’re sitting here running legally, and you cannot do as many miles per week as somebody that’s in control of a paper log,” he said. “What we need is for everybody to play in the same league and on the same level. … These other companies are going to have to run legal and straight by the book just like we do.”
But the temporary price is one he is willing to pay.
“I call [ELD] an equity insurance plan, because if there’s an accident, you know your drivers are legal and you won’t have some out-of-control lawsuit,” Richardson said. “You’re protecting your company, your equity in your company and that sort of thing.”
Riels said it’s a benefit that’s hard to put a number on. “But I know we sleep a lot better,” he added.