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Much of the US Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration's proposed rule for electronic onboard recorders (EOBRs) leaves me puzzled. When I look at what has been proposed, I can't shake the feeling ...

Much of the US Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s proposed rule for electronic onboard recorders (EOBRs) leaves me puzzled. When I look at what has been proposed, I can’t shake the feeling the FMCSA missed an opportunity to make a serious impact on the pervasive issue of logbook fudging.

While the immediate impact on Canadian carriers is minimal, I do think it’s important we get an accurate read on the proposed legislation and its potential impact south of the border, because of the likelihood it may influence our own legislators in setting up a Canadian policy on EOBRs.

Let’s work through what we know about the proposed legislation and I’ll explain the areas that leave me puzzled.

The most glaring difference between what some may have expected and what the government announced involves the target of the proposed legislation. FMCSA administrator John Hill explained that only carriers with two “serious” hours of service review violations within a two-year period would be required to equip their fleet with EOBRs, also for a two-year period. This would affect 930 carriers and 17,500 drivers, based on today’s safety performance statistics, according to information provided by the FMCSA. That’s less than 1% of the US fleet. EOBRs would remain voluntary for all other carriers, although the agency will be introducing as yet unspecified incentives to encourage the use of EOBRs.

Is it smart to go after only the worst offenders rather than making EOBRs mandatory across the board? Obviously the FMCSA thinks so. Hill told the media questioning him on the subject that his agency had to find a way of getting EOBRs on motor vehicles “without creating an unreasonable burden with a government mandate.” In other words, the industry understands EOBR purchase and implementation can be expensive and chose to begin with the worst offenders. The American Trucking Associations concurs, calling it a “sensible approach.”

But there are holes in that argument. For example, the low threshold for EOBR enforcement – two “serious” hours of service violations within a two-year period – does place larger carriers, which are more likely to have trucks crossing a scale or be called for an audit, at a disadvantage. And the EOBR requirement doesn’t appear to be tied to the offending drivers; the offending fleet would have to install EOBRs but the offending drivers within the fleet could move to another carrier. Wouldn’t the legislation be more effective if drivers knew that if they broke the rule, they would have to drive with an EOBR for the next two years no matter who their employer was? I imagine that would severely limit their attractiveness to other carriers.

Of course, making EOBRs mandatory industry wide would remove all of the above-mentioned concerns.

I also agree with the groups that point out that the legislation on its own fails to get at a key reason behind the fudging of logs – the excessive amount of time wasted waiting to load and unload at shipper and receiver docks each week. One US study a few years back found that dry van TL drivers spent a “conservative” 25 hours a week waiting to load and unload. The need to address this issue, particularly in industries such as food, is great.

The best way to curb inefficient, time-wasting shipper and receiver practices at the dock is for fleets to have intelligent scheduling software and to penalize inefficient shipping practices by implementing surcharges for waiting times. According to our research, 20% of shippers using LTL trucking and 30% of those using TL trucking already do pay detention surcharges. That practice needs to become widespread but that’s an issue that involves shipper-carrier relations and bargaining. What role can government play, however, other than to make EOBRs mandatory industry-wide, thus giving carriers reluctant to introduce such surcharges the legislative push to finally do so?

And let’s be honest with each other. The other reason fudging of logbooks is so common is the industry-wide acceptance of the practice – shippers, carriers, drivers, and likely government, all know it’s happening and choose to look the other way. If the government wanted to reward the carriers, drivers and shippers that do refuse to break the rules, would making EOBRs mandatory for all not be the best way to do it?

Assuming that EOBR technology can be tamper free – and I understand that too is in question – I can’t help thinking that industry-wide implementation would be the most effective approach.

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