NTSB says FMCSA black box proposal lacks teeth; wants tougher paper log rules

WASHINGTON — The U.S. National Transportation Safety Board says its sister agency governing commercial trucks should rethink its proposal to mandate electronic on-board recorders (EOBRs) only for “repeat violators” of hours-of-service rules.

In a letter to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA), the NTSB Chairman Mark Rosenker expressed concern that FMCSA currently lacks the “resources or processes” necessary to identify and discipline all carriers and drivers who are pattern violators. “Consequently,” says the department, “a program to impose EOBRs on pattern violators that relies on the current compliance review program to identify such carriers seems unlikely to be successful.”

FMCSA’s plan would see EOBRs — once commonly referred to as “black boxes” — required for a minimum of two years for carriers and independent owner-ops deemed “most likely to be a safety hazard on the road.” Carriers charged with two serious HOS review violations (with a rate of violation greater than 10%), in a two-year period, will have to fit their fleet with EOBRs.

NTSB recommends the EOBR proposal is beefed up,
and paper log rules are strengthened in the meantime.

The technology would continue to be voluntary for all other carriers, although FMCSA is introducing incentives to encourage further EOBR implementation.

The safety board, however, says it is unconvinced that incentives are sufficient to override the financial motivation that violators have for continuing to cheat on HOS regulations. Additionally, “encouraging motor carriers to perceive EOBRs primarily as a means of punishment could undermine the FMCSA’s goal of achieving voluntary industry-wide acceptance,” said the agency.

The FMCSA’s plan to only force EOBRs on truckers with two serious violations would ignore countless of other potentially dangerous fleets, says NTSB, citing one particular case study in which a fatigued truck driver slammed into another truck, fatally injuring its driver.

The agency’s investigation of that incident found that the offending Equity Transportation Co, driver was fatigued and in a “reduced state of alertness” when he to stop upon encountering traffic congestion in a temporary traffic control zone.

The reconstruction of the Michigan accident revealed that the driver had been on duty continuously for 19.75 hours — exceeding daily work limits by over 5 hours — and had been behind the wheel for almost 14 cumulative hours.

Although Equity Transportation was cited for HOS violations in a July 2004 compliance review, it would be identified as a pattern violator under the proposed rules because it consistently received satisfactory ratings prior to the accident, notes NTSB.

“The only way in which EOBRs can effectively help stem hours-of-service violations, and thereby reduce accidents involving a commercial driver’s reduced alertness or fatigue, is for the FMCSA to mandate EOBR installation and use by all operators,” the safety board says.

Furthermore, until a more effective system for ensuring driver records via EOBRs is in place and oversight of lax carriers improves, the NTSB says the Department of Transportation must also strengthen its existing paper log requirements.

“Requiring that all logs be sequentially numbered and bound, booklet fashion, would assist motor carriers and inspectors in accounting for original log entries. Also, requiring that the motor carrier and driver keep any corrected logs (with an explanation for the corrections) with the original logs would further enhance the integrity of an accounting program,” writes Rosenker.

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