May 14, 2012 8:00 AM, EDT

Opinion: Why an EOBR Mandate Is a Bad Idea

By David Owen


National Association of Small Trucking Companies

This Opinion piece appears in the May 14 print edition of Transport Topics. Click here to subscribe today.

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration continues to be dead set on forcing every commercial vehicle in the United States to carry an electronic onboard recorder — better known as an EOBR — despite the device’s hefty price tag and general uselessness as a safety tool.

In defending its determination to saddle motor carriers with these intrusive gizmos, FMCSA insists they will improve highway safety by reducing large truck crashes involving injuries and/or fatalities, but the agency cannot thus far provide statistical evidence that this assertion is true.

Safety, in fact, wasn’t part of the package when the technology that makes EOBRs possible was first being developed — except in the sense of keeping our nation safe. EOBRs are essentially byproducts of the U.S. Department of Defense Global Positioning System, which originally was developed for military purposes.

In the 1980s, DOD released GPS for civilian use, and a commercial version became popular with larger trucking companies to help them cope with high driver turnover rates — and the sad fact is that not all drivers play by the rules when it comes to their precise location.

Let us say upfront that nothing in this editorial comment should be construed as an argument against using EOBRs as a management tool. What we object to is a government mandate forcing carriers to invest in and use EOBRs for purposes other than their own. This is not an appropriate function of government nor the agency, nor will it have a positive effect on safety statistics.

This form of tracking did — and still does — have benefits for those choosing to use it, including ease of communication between driver and dispatch; fewer check calls; the ability of one dispatcher to handle more trucks, loads and drivers; fuel tax calculations; asset management; and as a valuable marketing tool to sophisticated shippers wanting to track their shipments.

As in the beginning, however, the downside remains that good drivers resent the implication they cannot be trusted and that “Big Brother” is always tracking their movements.

In the beginning, GPS was so expensive that it wasn’t a viable option for smaller carriers. However, technology now has advanced to the point that GPS technology is available for less than half of the early pricing.

Unfortunately, converting existing GPS systems into EOBRs will mean prices once again will increase drastically. And, as is so often the case, mega-fleets will absorb the costs of mandated electronic logs with relatively little pain, but EOBRs will be a significant burden for smaller trucking companies.

And now that the issue of money is on the table, some things that need to be considered are:

• How states, counties and municipalities will pay to give their police cruisers the ability to pull log data from trucks into the appropriate government system and transmit the data from the roadside.

• How dysfunctional EOBRs will be dealt with, i.e., will an otherwise functional truck be deemed “out-of-service” and left on the side of the road?

• How FMCSA intends to train sheriff’s deputies, highway patrolmen and others to interpret federal regulations on the shoulder of a highway. Will procedures be standardized or will inspections continue to be characterized by widespread confusion that leads to hundreds of roadside mistakes with an immediate effect on the safety status of carriers and their drivers without due process, probable cause or any functioning appeal process?

We believe the demand for mandated EOBRs is based on the false premise that all trucking companies and all commercial truck drivers push the hours-of-service rules and cheat on their logs.

If that truly were the case, why do only about 3% of trucking companies audited receive an unsatisfactory rating? In 2011, out of 10,964 audits, only 323 unsatisfactory ratings were issued.

FMCSA’s original plan was to mandate EOBRs only for so-called “bad actor” carriers, those with a history of playing fast and loose with log entries. But that was before the agency devised its Compliance, Safety, Accountability program, which, for example, now insists that 35% of the carriers in FMCSA’s database have perpetual “driver fatigue” issues.

We estimate that the true driver-fatigue figure is between 3% and 4%, making the EOBR mandate a monumental case of overkill.

Now for the big question: Who benefits?

The answer is large trucking companies. Most have onboard technology in place already, making additional costs minimal. And when every carrier is so equipped, the mega-fleets will see a dramatic drop in driver turnover because the option of switching to a carrier without EOBRs will be gone.

What’s more, the majority of added costs will fall on the big companies’ competitors, the small fleets and independent contractors that we estimate constitute 95% of the trucking companies in America.

It is not surprising, given these numbers, that American Trucking Associations supports the EOBR mandate, while the Owner-Operator Independent Driver Association, the National Association of Small Trucking Companies and the National Federation of Independent Business oppose it.

In many respects, this functions like an additional tax on American consumers. But worse than that, it is the first step toward allowing our central government to track, tax and control every motor vehicle in this country — potentially a much larger issue.

The use — or not — of EOBRs is an issue best left to the marketplace for implementation as a means to compete. It should not be an expensive fiat misplaced on the vast majority of carriers who have no business use for the technology.

The National Association of Small Trucking Companies, Gallatin, Tenn., has more than 3,000 U.S. and Canadian member companies.