Electronic onboard recorders (EOBRs) have been around for more than 20 years, over which time their functionality has progressed steadily, making them an indispensible tool for many fleets focused on improving safety, efficiency and customer service. While the tools have gotten better and better, however, the debate over their proper place in America's fleet has been anything but smooth.

Just when it looked like a rulemaking on EOBRs from the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) was going to be issued last year, the final policy review was not completed prior to the administration change, leaving fleets puzzled over the eventual role EOBRs may (or may not) play in their own operations. Inevitably, rumors and conjecture have been filling in the gap. Fleet Owner had the opportunity to talk with some industry experts about what they see ahead, particularly regarding the use of EOBRs for driver hours of service (HOS) compliance:

Q: What happened to the new EOBR rule from FMCSA that the trucking industry expected to see in 2008?

“The new EOBR rule was proposed in January 2007 to replace the 1988 regulation [395.15] and submitted for final policy review in November 2008,” says Dave Kraft, senior manager of government affairs for Qualcomm, current chairman of the American Trucking Assns. (ATA) Technology & Maintenance Council EOBR Task Force and vice chairman of the Telecommunications Industry Assn. Telematics Committee. “However, the policy review was not completed prior to the change of administration in January 2009, and the rule was withdrawn subject to further actions by President Obama's appointees at the U.S. Dept. of Transportation [DOT] and FMCSA.

“As of today, FMCSA does not yet have a new administrator appointed,” Kraft adds. “He or she would likely need to be involved in the review process.”

Contents of the draft final rule are not available to the public, he notes, but the prior, proposed rule required electronic logging for enforcement of hours of service regulations only for carriers with a history of poor HOS compliance. It was not an industry-wide mandate.

Q: How might the proposal introduced this June by Rep. James L. Oberstar (D-MN), chairman of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, which calls for mandating EOBRs for all commercial motor vehicles subject to HOS, change things?

Rep. Oberstar issued a white paper in June (now referred to as the “blueprint”) that outlines his vision for the Surface Transportation Authorization Act of 2009. It would require all commercial motor vehicles subject to HOS rules to be equipped with EOBRs to help improve commercial driver safety. “The vast majority of motor carriers, more than 99%, would have been able to continue to use paper logbooks under the rule, which has not been finalized,” document writers note.

“This resolution is still in the drafting stage. There are still a few blanks and holes to fill in,” says Jim Berard, director of communications for the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. “Mr. Oberstar included the EOBR provision because DOT has been unsuccessful moving their electronic logbook rulemaking forward, and he would like to see it sooner rather than later for the contribution it could make to highway safety. This was not created in a vacuum. He has been gathering comments for years now, talking with trucking organizations, owner-operators, Teamsters and so on.

“It is important to remember that this bill will be one part of the 775-page Surface Transportation Authorization Act, which runs out at the end of this year,” he adds, “so it is a small slice of a very large pie.”

According to Berard, the administration is talking about delaying action on the bill for a year and a half, which would push the EOBR measure and others out to 2011.

“Everything is still in draft form,” notes Kraft, “but the Oberstar proposal clearly points to a direction on EOBRs. This is the first time that has appeared. Even if Congress does not do a new highway bill this year, they could still do an 18-month interim bill, for instance, and that could potentially occur in advance of the FMCSA rulemaking.”

Q: Voluntary use of EOBRs to record duty status is permitted now under the current rule. Have many fleets elected to do this?

Private fleets have been the real early adopters of EOBR technology, according to the National Private Truck Council (NPTC) and many industry suppliers. “About three-quarters of our members already have EOBRs, based upon our most-recent benchmarking survey,” notes an NPTC spokesperson.

“Many of today's largest private truck fleets have already adopted EOBR technology to help manage their operations,” says Tom Flies, senior vp-product management for Xata. “In fact, many of them are on their second or third generation of technology. As technology becomes more accessible to smaller fleets, we expect to see even further interest in EOBR technology from these fleets.

“In the truckload sector, however, there has been a reluctance to use EOBRs, though that has changed over the past two years,” Flies adds. “There are many fleets starting to adopt or pilot EOBRs. The benefits for truckload come from the integration of EOBR information, which can lead to significant cost savings, increases in safety compliance and more effective operations.”

Q: Have trucking industry organizations taken a position on either the new FMCSA proposed rule (as we know it) or on the Oberstar blueprint?

ATA supported the 2007 FMCSA proposal, which required electronic logging for enforcement of hours of service regulations for carriers and drivers with a history of poor HOS compliance. However, in comments recently sent to Oberstar about his blueprint, ATA was somewhat cooler: “We have concerns over the proposed requirement, but we also have some ideas about how we can accomplish the goal of increased enforcement of hours of service rules, and we look forward to working with the Committee on this important safety issue,” it noted.

“The cost of electronic logging equipment is substantial, and if there is a federal mandate for the equipment in order to improve federal and state enforcement efforts, there should be federal funding assistance for it.”

NPTC president and CEO Gary Petty, in written comments to FMCSA submitted in 2007, noted that the organization agreed with FMCSA “that a mandate for use of EOBRs by all operators of commercial motor vehicles is neither necessary nor advisable.”

NPTC did support allowing motor carriers to use EOBRs on a voluntary basis for hours of service compliance, however, and also supported the then-proposed requirement that a driver operating a commercial motor vehicle equipped with an EOBR must use the device to record duty status.

The organization also recommended that FMCSA expand incentives for fleets to further encourage the use of EOBR technology. In particular, NPTC “strongly recommended” that the final rule permit those carriers using EOBRs to record driver hours of service to dispense with all supporting documents, including on-duty, not-driving and off-duty status.

Q: What is CSA 2010?

Comprehensive Safety Analysis (CSA) 2010 is a major FMCSA initiative to improve the effectiveness of the agency's compliance and enforcement programs (see www.fmcsa.dot.gov/csa2010). The goal is to further reduce large truck and bus crashes, injuries and fatalities. A proposed rule is not anticipated before the end of this year, followed by a 90-day comment period and a final rulemaking at the end of 2010 at the earliest.

“There are a limited number of safety auditors,” says Kraft. “CSA would permit auditors to do very focused audits that look at specific compliance problems rather than having to do a comprehensive review every time as they do now.”

Under CSA 2010, the measurement system for carrier safety performance would change to measure seven weighted “BASICs” (Behavioral Analysis Safety Improvement Categories), including unsafe driving, fatigued driving, controlled substance/alcohol issues, vehicle maintenance, improper loading of cargo, and crash indicators. Based on a carrier's score within each BASIC, the measurement system would trigger the agency to begin specific “interventions” when a carrier's performance reached an unfit threshold. Interventions would increase in severity.

Q: What is the Wireless Roadside Inspections program? Would that, in effect, mandate EOBRs?

According to Kraft, the Wireless Roadside Inspections program (WRI) is a research initiative by FMCSA. It is currently in a “requirements definition phase” and FMCSA plans to launch pilot operations in early 2010. The program would be voluntary for carriers that have demonstrated effective safety and compliance management capabilities. The goal is to automate safety inspections of carrier and driver credentials, electronic driver logs and selected vehicle safety systems to save inspection time where non-compliance is a minimal risk.

“The WRI program is really intended to make life easier for those who do a good job on compliance,” Kraft says. “It will enable participating carriers to minimize time lost with roadside inspections while also earning positive credit for their safety performance rating. It will also let inspectors focus their time on the higher-risk people out on the highways.

“Wireless safety inspections are really just the opposite of what you might think,” he adds. “The idea is not to try to find a way for inspectors to catch everyone, but to make it easier for the good fleets to go about their business and for inspectors to put their attentions where they are needed the most.”

Q: Is Canada also looking at EOBR rulemaking?

Yes. In February 2009, the Canadian Trucking Alliance (CTA) wrote to Canada's federal transport minister informing him that the alliance continued to be of the view that the adoption of a universal EOBR mandate in North America “is inevitable” and that Canada should “work with the industry and with U.S. regulators to ensure consistent and compatible regulation between Canada and the United States wherever possible.” (See www.cantruck.com.)

CTA's policy statement noted that “the Canadian Trucking Alliance takes the position that it should be a mandatory universal requirement that all heavy trucks operating into and out of Canada (and ultimately all of North America) be equipped with electronic onboard recorders in order to improve compliance with hours of service regulations and level the playing field between all carriers in terms of hours of service compliance. The question should not be if EOBRs should be made mandatory, but when and how the transition to a mandatory regime will be conducted in order to ensure efficiency, effectiveness and fairness.”

Q: Now that DOT can request GPS and other electronic data during a safety compliance audit, is it better to use electronic logs rather than paper logs, even though they are not required?

Speaking during a Fleet Owner and Truckload Carriers Assn. webcast on EOBRs sponsored by Xata, attorney Timothy W. Wiseman noted that his firm is now recommending that fleets move to electronic logs. Wiseman is a managing partner with the firm Scopelitis, Garvin, Light, Hanson & Feary, which specializes in regulatory, DOT and hazardous materials compliance as well as other areas of the trucking business.

A 1997 Policy Memorandum by FMCSA limited the use of advanced technology for enforcement purposes, he explained, including GPS and other tracking devices. FMCSA rescinded this policy effective Dec. 19, 2008, and on Dec. 24, 2008, sent notice to all enforcement personnel to begin requesting GPS and other electronic records as supporting documents during any compliance review.

DOT's use of electronic data during safety audits has already encouraged some fleets to make the move to electronic logs, according to Frank Morena of Cadec, who notes that electronic logs can be a real plus during an audit. “We have a customer in the southwest who just passed a three-month DOT audit with flying colors, thanks to the use of their electronic logs,” Moreno says.

Dave Kraft notes that the use of electronic data is another signal to fleets to do a good job of managing compliance. “There is a lot of attention on compliance now,” he says. “If you are going to do all the work of paper logs, it is something to think about. Proactive management is a big focus here at Qualcomm because we see so many opportunities to run more efficiently and safely [using technologies like EOBRs].

“It is not just the EOBR itself. It is how we can use it to capture information and bring it back to the enterprise to use that makes all the difference,” Kraft adds. “Fleets can now look at time behind the wheel in relation to other events. They can see a much richer picture [of what is really happening on the road]. This enables better analytics, better training, better performance metrics and better safety. Sometimes, we get all wrapped up in the rules and that is not where the focus should really be. The people who are the best at leveraging information will have the best advantage in business.”

EOBR suppliers

Aeris: www.aeris.net

AirIQ: www.airiq.com

Air-Trak: www.air-trak.com

@Road: www.atroad.com

Cadec Global: www.cadec.com

GE Equipment Services: www.ge.com/assetintelligence

PeopleNet: www.peoplenetonline.com

PHH Arval: www.phh.com

Qualcomm: www.qualcomm.com

QA Technologies: www.qatechnologies.com

Teletrac: www.teletrac.net

Telogis: www.telogis.com

Tripmaster: www.tripmaster.com

Turnpike Global Technologies: www.turnpikeglobal.com

Xata: www.xata.com

Xora: www.xora.com

Zonar Systems: www.zonarsystems.com