The trucking industry is waiting for the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration to drop the other hours-of-service shoe — a rulemaking on electronic on-board recorders, or EOBRs. FMCSA officials have promised a first-quarter delivery.

The issue has been knocking around since the mid-1990s, and last year FMCSA published an Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, a precursor to the usual Notice of Proposed Rulemaking. It's an uncommon move employed when regulators expect great controversy and want to make sure all their bases are covered.

Although EOBRs are indeed controversial, their place in trucking is also inevitable, which has led the American Trucking Assns. to soften its position. Originally against their installation, the trucking group has now accepted the fact that EOBRs will be in their future. “Members thought we should be more proactive on issues that are likely to occur,” said Dave Osiecki, vp-safety, security & operations for ATA. “We ought to try to get ahead of the curve and shape the future instead of reacting.”

Like many others offering comments to FMCSA, ATA is willing to support EOBR — with reservations. For example, the group wants to make sure that privacy issues are addressed, that tax incentives are offered, that all motor carriers be subject to installation and, most important, that it can be shown that EOBRs increases safety and are thus worth the investment.

The last point will be problematic. Werner Enterprises has used paperless logs under a pilot program since July 1998. In the company's public comments, it stated: “Werner has no absolute, irrefutable evidence to prove that the use of its paperless logging system and therefore its EOBRs have resulted in fewer accidents on the highway.” This does not mean that paperless logs do not have safety benefits, only that the company cannot verify it, officials added. One thing they were sure of, however, was that their drivers' failure to comply with HOS regulations was 1.2%, well below the national average of 6.8%.

The Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Assn. suggested that Werner's experience shows that simply looking at EOBRs to improve safety misses the mark. They went even further, showing that since 1998, Werner's accidents, as recorded by SafeStat, actually progressively increased, thus moving the company from fourth-worst in accidents per unit that year to worst by 2002, the latest records available at the time of filing. Todd Spencer, the OOIDA's vp, notes: “All we're saying is that EOBRs are not a panacea for safety.”

OOIDA posits that installing EOBRs would be a financial burden for its 117,000 members. FMCSA estimates the cost of installation in a new truck at $500, and of retro-fitting older cabs at $3,000. “These government estimates are probably low and do not include other costs,” says Spencer.

Looking at the European experience with tachographs does not offer definitive safety correlations either. “Their downward trend in crashes is consistent with tachographs [first installed in the mid '90s] but there is no causal proof,” says Osiecki.

Steve Keppler, director of policy and programs for the Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance, concurs that better qualitative data needs to be collected and analyzed. The group is generally in favor of electronic onboard recorders, but hopes for a phased-in requirement.

When the rulemaking is published, it is certain to be contentious. FMCSA may find itself once again in the difficult position of proving that financial burdens it places on carriers will, in fact, reap measurable safety benefits.