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VOL. 35 | NO. 48 | Friday, December 2, 2011

Truckers put foot down over new electronic log books

By Josh Spilker

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Hellbent on making deliveries at an ungodly pace. Willing to barrel over any vehicles, police or inspection stations that get in their way. Alone and in control at all times, they fudge log books and indulge in all-night benders.

These are the myths that surround commercial truck drivers. Problem is, they’re just not true anymore.

“There’s the perception that it’s the Wild West out there and drivers are cheating, but that’s very few and far between,” says Steve Sichterman, the Little Rock- and Brentwood-based vice-president of business development for safety and compliance with TripPak.

Truck drivers must fill out logs that document their each and every stop, including on-duty loading, sleep, off-duty driving and on-duty driving. To the large and smart companies, there is no tricking the log books. TripPak helps audit the books to steer the carriers clear from violations.

“For the most part, when you look at those logs, they’re in the 98 to 99 percent with compliance. Drivers know their logs are being audited,” Sichterman says.

But how drivers keep track of their hours has become a contentious issue. Technology is now available to allow drivers to electronically record all their comings and goings. Called electronic logs or “e-logs,” devices are synced with the truck’s motor to perceive when the truck is moving or when it’s stopped.

E-logs force drivers to account for the proper amount of sleep, breaks and inspections, while also allowing carriers to track the location of cargo.

Recently, a regulation enacted by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) would have forced major violators to install and use electronic logs.

But a lawsuit was brought against FMCSA by the Owner-Operators Independent Drivers Association (OOIDA) arguing the new rules amounted to “harassment” of drivers. A court agreed and the rules are now suspended.

Forced mandates for electronic logging mechanisms would substantially drive up costs for small companies, since it would mean installing new electronic equipment along with paying for data and Internet plans so the information could be transferred back to the carrier’s headquarters.

“For small carriers, they’re kind of in a pinch, and that’s why you’re seeing small carriers fight against it the mandate. It comes to dollars and cents,” Sichterman says.

In addition, regulatory agencies could change the requirements or the specific type of equipment needed in each truck, costing smaller, family-run companies even more money.

“I would compare (the mandates) to having and requiring all drivers to breathe into a breathalyzer before they start a car without having a record,” says Dave Owens, president of the Hendersonville-based National Association of Small Trucking Companies.

Small carriers are havens for drivers who see electronic logging as a violation of trust, Owens adds. Instead, drivers should be able to choose to work or not work for carriers with electronic logging.

“A lot of the carriers have instituted EOBRs (electronic on-board recorders) as a way to insure the safety numbers are solid, but the downside is costing good drivers because good drivers don’t want to be micromanaged to that level,” Owen says.

Electronic logs equal efficiency

For larger companies, it’s also about dollars and cents and the savings that come from electronic logs. National carriers such as Schneider National and JB Hunt have installed electronic logging and data systems in their fleets. Skyline Transportation, a Knoxville-based carrier and a member of the Tennessee Trucking Association, installed electronic logging equipment in their trucks earlier this year.

Jeff Reed, president of Skyline Transportation, says he was interested in eliminating logging mistakes. Drivers are not necessarily trying to beat the system, he adds, but common administrative errors can occur with a paper and pencil log book.

“E-logs inherently help safety and it helps in our number of violations,” Reed says. “A lot of the log violations that we got, it was that they didn’t fill it out correctly. The main reason was to get more accuracy and to have better control of it.”

With 75 tractor trailers and 85 drivers, Skyline is a mid-sized carrier that services most of the Southeast and into Texas. Keeping electronic track of driver hours helps their dispatch team make better route and driver choices, Reed adds.

“It really makes us put together a better plan to manage the route better. It was a big transition for us for the planners to use the e-logs and to understand what the drivers are capable of,” Reed says.

Skyline drivers were concerned about how the system worked, but Reed says he has not had much resistance to the e-logs.

“They were concerned about it, and so far that they’ve been working under it; they’re not against it. It makes their life easier, it reduces their stress. They know the hours of service won’t be an issue, so it’s really a peace of mind on their part,” he adds.

Mandates vs. voluntary compliance

Pushing truckers into e-logs isn’t appealing for the driver or the company. But proving that electronic systems are beneficial to the bottom line is a more worthwhile goal.

“Instead of forcing them, how do you guide them through the regulatory pressure?” asks Xata market analyst Ryan Barnett. Barnett references the FMCSA’s Safety Measurement System, which shows carrier performance measures.

Xata is a data management company that provides electronic logs and fleet management applications for truck carriers through in-cab devices, smartphone applications and web-based management systems.

For Xata and similar companies – PeopleNet or Qualcomm – the software and hardware installations are an effective way to combat violations and to educate drivers about proper methods. Installing Xata’s systems, Barnett says, shows drivers their carriers are serious about driver safety and client cargo.

“Drivers quickly understand what they’re transporting from a financial and quality standpoint,” Barnett says.

In addition to avoiding violations, fleet efficiency is maximized. Drivers can now accurately record how long they are at a stop down to the minute, instead of just rounding off into 15 increments. And those minutes add up.

“That gives them accountability to the dispatcher and they can track dock times when they arrive and when they depart,” Barnett says.

Who’s watching who?

Some larger carriers feel nudged into using electronic logs because they believe the Department of Transportation and FMSCA are watching them more closely than smaller carriers.

“Right now, you’re seeing a big push for on-board recording from larger truck companies,” Sichterman says. “The reason is, they’re under more scrutiny. The DOT knows who they are, and they’ve always felt that it hasn’t been a level playing field. They’re watched more than smaller carriers. That’s a feeling more than anything else.”

And if the large carriers are feeling the push from the DOT and FMCSA, why shouldn’t the small carriers also face that scrutiny? It comes down to safety for all truckers, Reed says.

“The majority of the carriers, especially the fleets, their goal is to be safe, number one,” he says. “The reason I want (e-logs) to be mandated is so that everyone is on the same playing field.”

Rather than focusing strictly on safety, Xata’s Barnett says he hopes the savings and return on investment for carriers make e-logs more appealing.

“I don’t want a law that mandates e-logs for everyone, but I want companies that want to use it, not because they have to use it,” Barnett says.

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