For five years now, the trucking industry has been wrestling with the notion that it will be faced with a mandate for electronic onboard recorders (EOBRs). That's right; five full years have passed since the concept of an EOBR mandate was introduced to the industry via an Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking in the Federal Register. In that time, the industry has gone from panic to acceptance of a technology that could indeed save lives. It is no longer a guess as to whether or not EOBRs will be required, but rather how and when.
What was shaping up to be a final EOBR regulation from FMCSA early this year was rescinded by the Obama administration and sent back to the agency for further review. Now undergoing yet another review by the White House Office of Management and Budget, a final rule could be issued as early as this fall, ending what seems to be a regulatory eternity.
As a necessary precursor to any EOBR mandate, FMCSA recently revised its policy on requesting GPS records during an hours-of-service compliance review. On Nov. 19, 2008, the agency said it would start asking for advanced technology information (i.e., GPS records) when conducting a review, a 180-degree change from previous policy. As a result of this shift in policy and to better assure themselves of compliance with HOS regulations, drivers and safety departments alike have started testing EOBRs industry-wide to discover the pros and cons of implementing this technology.
The trucking industry is not alone in thinking an EOBR regulation has been a long time coming. U.S. Rep. James Oberstar (D-MN) has proposed a full mandate for EOBRs in the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee's recent language for highway reauthorization. Regardless of how such a mandate is enacted, however, FMCSA will always be responsible for its enforcement.
With a mandate now a foregone conclusion, many are still voicing concerns about and attempting to shape its parameters. First, the cost of the device, about $4,000 for top models, can be prohibitive for small fleets. During these economic times, many fleets are having a tough time buying much-needed tractors, to say nothing of updating existing ones with EOBRs. A tax incentive, however, could alleviate some of those concerns. Second, many have questioned the proposed rule as it was presented. Instead of a mandate for those experiencing problems with HOS compliance and voluntary acceptance for the rest of the industry, many carriers are encouraging industry-wide adoption.
As if those points were not enough, many also see the introduction of a mandate as an opportunity to explore greater flexibility in the sleeper berth. Using EOBRs to comply with HOS regulations can make a split sleeper provision a practical option. This is especially critical now that recent studies have revealed that a driver can receive better quality rest if the driver takes a break when actually tired. In other words, drivers should split their sleep periods into two or three quality sleep opportunities when they feel the need to rest, which EOBRs would make possible.
Since an EOBR mandate seems imminent at this point, now is the time for the industry and FMCSA to come together to figure out ways to ease implementation. The debates, while useful, need to give way to action, or vulnerable carriers may suddenly find themselves facing some pretty tough decisions just to stay afloat.
David Heller, CDS, is director of safety and policy for the Truckload Carriers Assn., responsible for interpreting and communicating industry-related regulations and legislation to the membership of TCA. Forward comments to Mr. Heller at Safety411@truckload.org