Loving the black box

Oct. 1, 2006
It looks like the American Trucking Assns. is finally jumping off a dead horse opposition to electronic on-board records, or black boxes, for monitoring driver hours of service.

It looks like the American Trucking Assns. is finally jumping off a dead horse — opposition to electronic on-board records, or black boxes, for monitoring driver hours of service.

It's been clear for some time that trucking faces an enormous public-image black eye if it digs in its heels over what the general public sees as an obvious attempt by truckers to “cheat” on safety regulations intended to keep tired drivers off the road. It's also been clear that the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration is moving slowly, but inexorably, to mandating their use no matter what the industry may say.

So the change of heart isn't unexpected. As an industry lobbying group, ATA needs to face up to political realities. But what is surprising, and encouraging, is that ATA's new attitude comes with a solid study that shows EOBRs actually have a positive impact for most fleets that have already voluntarily adopted them.

To be fair, ATA has been signaling for the last year or so that it was reconsidering its long-standing opposition to EOBRs. Now with FMCSA expected to issue preliminary rules moving the industry once step closer to that mandate, ATA's research arm — the American Transportation Research Institute — has released a study that cautiously endorses EOBR use and moves the argument from opposition to how the agency can best implement any new regulation.

One of the major objections voiced by fleets has been concern over negative driver reaction to an electronic Big Brother. According to ATRI's study, the exact opposite is true. Over 75% of the fleets currently using EOBRs to record hours of service report that driver morale has actually improved and not one fleet said it had damaged morale. As for driver retention, 62% said it had no impact and 19% said installing black boxes improved their retention rates.

Cost is another common objection, but ATRI found that large and mid-sized fleets consider prices for HOS-only devices “affordable.” Smaller carriers and owner-operators do have a problem with the cost, but ATRI suggests that tax credits might help them make the transition.

The study does point to a few credible problems with an EOBR mandate, chief among them that there's no proven link yet between HOS enforcement and improved safety. For the general public, though, there is an intuitive link between tighter HOS enforcement and truck safety. With ATRI's finding that black boxes will “provide considerable compliance … benefits,” ATA is finally acknowledging that that public perception is probably enough to justify the mandate.

Other problems like lack of standards for HOS enforcement and controlling access to the collected data are also raised by the ATRI study. But instead of presenting these issues are reasons to oppose an FMCSA regulation, ATA is now talking about how to address them in what they're tacitly admitting is an inevitable mandate.

It may be a bit late coming to that position, but it's the right one at this point. There's still time for ATA and the rest of the industry to shape workable rules and at the same time show the public that trucking isn't trying to duck compliance with safety regulation.

E-mail: [email protected]
Web site: fleetowner.com

About the Author

Jim Mele

Nationally recognized journalist, author and editor, Jim Mele joined Fleet Owner in 1986 with over a dozen years’ experience covering transportation as a newspaper reporter and magazine staff writer. Fleet Owner Magazine has won over 45 national editorial awards since his appointment as editor-in-chief in 1999.

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