Opinion: Truck telematics data offers just part of the answer

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It’s harder than ever to keep a dispatcher or safety manager in the dark.

Today’s telematics systems can track a driver’s every move. Global positioning systems pinpoint truck locations, accelerometers trigger reports after sudden braking events or harsh turns, and video cameras offer views that were once limited to passengers in a jump seat. Dive into an engine’s electronic control unit and you can monitor everything from time on the cruise control to pressure on a throttle.

Now mandated electronic logging devices (ELDs) will focus their tireless eyes on driver activities in the context of hours of service rules.

Remember the days when trucks essentially disappeared after leaving a fleet yard? When conversations between dispatchers and drivers had to wait until a driver found a payphone? Those days are long gone. Just like the payphones themselves.

There’s no denying the benefits that these new technologies can deliver. The GPS locations can be used to automatically inform customers about changes in arrival times. Data from accelerometers and video feeds have been used to prove that drivers did everything they could in the moments before a collision, and to focus training resources where they can make the biggest difference. The ELDs, meanwhile, eliminate mindless paperwork and violations linked to things like a missing fleet address in a logbook.

High-risk drivers can’t hide behind excuses and a promise to do better. Those who don’t measure up to a fleet’s safety standards will likely be shown the door.

But the drivers who dismiss such tools as “electronic babysitters” should not be dismissed out of hand.

Such complaints often have more to do with unrealistic expectations than the data itself. Fleet managers can become so enamored with new spreadsheets, graphs and digital dashboards that they overlook the reasons why data might differ or how it might affect people behind the wheel. Need proof of that? Consider how many fuel bonus programs have gone awry because drivers were expected to meet the benchmarks established by peers who drive different equipment or haul lighter loads.

ELDs certainly become a cause for worry when route plans are so tightly managed that there is no allowance for heavy traffic, extended dwell times, bad weather, border delays, or the time needed to find a secure parking location for the night.

Drivers are left to mask many issues like these in an era of paper logbooks. Sure, there is no official “wiggle room” in the hours of service rules, but we all know of cases where the driving time is rounded down; when the start of a duty cycle is, to use a generous term, “estimated”.

Mandated ELDs leave no such room. It will be up to fleets to find ways to recognize more of the realities of life on the road.

This won’t be the last of the truck-tracking technology that we see, either. New data points will emerge. Business strategies will continue to evolve.

Those who embrace data-driven decisions simply need to remember that numbers will only offer part of an answer. The best business strategies will always strike a balance between the drive for productivity and the lives of people who make it possible.

It’s because life doesn’t always fit within the neat confines of a spreadsheet or graph.

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John G. Smith is the editorial director of Newcom Media's trucking and supply chain publications -- including Today's Trucking, trucknews.com, TruckTech, Transport Routier, and Road Today. The award-winning journalist has covered the trucking industry since 1995.

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