Closer scrutiny at hand

Along with other last-minute regulatory changes, the Bush Administration before it leaves office is expected to announce its final ruling on electronic onboard recorders (EOBRs) and it may be wider in scope than previously suggested, according to government officials. An expansion to more than just errant carriers as previously proposed would not be a surprise considering that Federal Motor Carrier

Along with other last-minute regulatory changes, the Bush Administration before it leaves office is expected to announce its final ruling on electronic onboard recorders (EOBRs) — and it may be wider in scope than previously suggested, according to government officials.

An expansion to more than just errant carriers — as previously proposed — would not be a surprise considering that Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) Chief John Hill has testified before Congress on several occasions that he believes the “future of hours of service compliance is EOBRs.”

The EOBR issue has been knocking around since the mid-1990s and in 2004, FMCSA began a rulemaking that attracted a great deal of controversy. After a public comment period, the plan was to limit mandatory EOBR use to carriers that exceeded the HOS rules at least 10% of the time. This would be measured through two reviews over a two-year period. According to FMCSA estimates, this would affect less than 1% of carriers.

Now, a ruling may expand EOBRs to more users by including those carriers that have experienced serious crashes during HOS violations. We could also see incentives for EOBR installation through monetary or other means. A mandatory requirement for all carriers might be difficult to put forth, officials say, because FMCSA would have to show a cost-benefit analysis which would be a tough sell considering the current recession.

According to federal law, agencies must prove the cost benefits of regulations before they can be implemented. FMCSA had a difficult time proving this analysis for changing the hours of service rules from 10 to 11 hours, which resulted in the regulation being mired in the courts for years. Even so, some observers were surprised that the final HOS rule and the EOBR were not packaged together when they were sent to the White House for approval because they are operationally related.

A cost-benefit case might be made easier, however, if a recent Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance (CVSA) symposium on EOBRs is any indication of carriers' success with the devices. Some smaller carriers reported return on investments in less than a year, and large carriers like J.B. Hunt have reported single-digit productivity gains. During filings in 2007, many carriers reported that drivers often preferred EOBRs — despite previous complaints about privacy intrusions — because it removed the onus of paperwork. In previous years, driver reluctance had been a stumbling block to implementation, but this objection has been fading.

Stephen A. Keppler, director, policy & programs at CVSA, notes the cost of an EOBR also could become a non-issue because truckers can purchase minimally compliant devices for under $300. “I think carriers can certainly buy a minimally compliant device, but they lose the productivity benefits that come from a full-featured device. You can't just look at it as only a compliance device because it can be used [to increase productivity] throughout a fleet's entire operation.”

For one federal agency, the EOBR is only about safety, and they are not pleased with FMCSA's progress on this issue so far. The National Transportation Safety Board just issued its 2009 Federal Most Wanted List of safety improvements, and it wants all interstate commercial vehicle carriers to use electronic onboard recorders to collect data on both driver hours of operation and accident conditions.

For CVSA, the issue is not only about safety but standardization. “We don't care what supplier makes the EOBRs as long as the data is credible and legitimate.”

Many larger fleets already are using EOBRs and it will be interesting to see if FMCSA's new rule will spur others to follow suit.

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