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U.S. mandate on truck logs closer to reality

Electronic-tracker directive designed to improve safety by Robbie Neiswanger | November 29, 2015 at 2:31 a.m.

Dave Osiecki, executive vice president and chief of national advocacy for the American Trucking Associations, preached patience to a group of safety professionals gathered for a convention in Little Rock earlier this month.

The long-awaited federal rule requiring companies and owner-operators to equip their trucks with devices designed to keep an electronic record of a driver's hours of service is a step closer to going into effect.

"Have we been waiting on this one forever?" Osiecki said. "Yes. But this will happen. Trust us."

The wait appears to be in its final days after the White House Office of Management and Budget signed off on the rule Nov. 17. It was the last hurdle before publication in the Federal Register, which starts a two-year clock mandating trucking companies to trade the old method of paper logs for electronic devices to keep track of the number of hours a driver works.

The regulation has been contested throughout the process and opponents continue to fight as publication of the rule nears Monday's projected time line. But Arkansas Trucking Association President Shannon Newton said getting to the brink "feels like a victory" to the segment of the industry that has been pushing for and using electronic logging devices for years, believing the technological tools further efforts to improve highway safety and hours of service compliance.

"I think the industry is ready for it, to be honest," Newton said. "Those members that we had three, four, five years ago that came down and said, 'How are we going to make this work? This will never work,' are the same people now asking, 'How quickly can we bring the industry into compliance?'

"They've made it work and they want everyone else to be playing under the same set of rules."

Outlawing paper logs would end a long-standing practice in the industry.

Truck drivers have been permitted to use pencil and paper to keep track of their hours on the road since 1938.

Advocates of the change to electronic logging devices believe the regulation is necessary for safety reasons, believing it will reduce fatigued driving. The rule is intended to keep companies and drivers honest by eliminating the opportunity to alter paper logs and stay on the road longer than permitted.

Lane Kidd, managing director of the Trucking Alliance, said the electronic devices will provide much-needed "definition and limitation" to the trucking industry.

"Paper logbooks are easily erased with a pencil," Kidd said. "So no longer will the industry be operating on the honor system. It's a really good step for safety. It's a nice step for the trucking industry in terms of public image.

"It provides some assurance for the motoring public that those truck drivers they're sharing the highways with are obeying the law and not on duty longer than they should be."

Opponents like the Owner-Operators Independent Drivers Association, which is based in Missouri, argue there are no safety benefits to an electronic logging device mandate.

Association public relations director Norita Taylor said the devices can't automatically record a driver's compliance with hours of service regulations and can only track the location and movement of the truck itself. Taylor also indicated there could be an adverse impact on safety.

"ELDs actually force drivers to spend more time behind the wheel as companies use them to squeeze every available minute out of drivers' available work hours," Taylor said.

The National Association of Small Trucking Companies is fighting the rule as well because it has nothing to do with safety, according to its president, David Owen.

Owen said he's not against trucking companies using electronic logging devices to help drivers comply to hours of service laws. He would use the devices for that reason if he owned a company. But Owen opposes a regulation forcing every company to invest in costly equipment when most have no problems following federal law with paper logs.

"Most large companies make the mistake of assuming all small trucking companies are running illegal and that is not true. It's nowhere close to true," Owen said. "There may be 5, 7, 8 percent of the companies out there still taking advantage of paper logs or the hours of service, but that's a small number in the big scheme of things.

"The idea that going to electronic logs is going to hurt small carriers economically because they won't be able to cheat anymore is totally erroneous."

Specific requirements and specifications for the devices won't be available until the final rule is published.

Both sides agree it will have an effect on the industry, though.

Brad Delco, a transportation analyst for Stephens Inc. in Little Rock, predicts electronic logs will be the "biggest change to the domestic transportation market since deregulation in 1980."

Delco believes "noncompliant capacity" will be removed over time, indicating in research notes the number of trucks available to haul cargo could be reduced by as much as 7 percent. But he said the electronic logging mandate is a positive for trucking because it will improve safety, level the playing field and drive consolidation in a "fragmented industry."

"The only negative impact this is going to have is on people who are knowingly and willingly breaking the law today," Delco said. "It could impact large companies. It could impact small companies. But if you're breaking the law, yes, it's going to impact you."

The Arkansas Trucking Association has supported electronic logging devices of some form since 1999, according to Newton. About 40 percent of the association's members have been early adopters, implementing the devices into their fleets in anticipation of federal regulations.

CalArk International, Inc., which is based in Little Rock, has used electronic logging devices since 2010. Vice President of Safety Dennis Hilton said there were drivers who didn't like them when the change occurred. But Hilton said everyone has adjusted and added "you couldn't arm wrestle the program away" from drivers today.

Billy Cartwright, vice president of safety and recruiting at USA Truck, said the Van Buren-based company is already 100 percent compliant in using electronic logging devices. He described the implementation process as a challenge because "you're breaking guys' habits," but said electronic logs will ensure everyone is playing by the same rules.

"It's evident that our government wants it to happen. So it's going to happen," Cartwright said. "We just need to fall in line, get compliant and just be ready for it. Make sure our drivers are accustomed to it. That way when it is 100 percent required, that individual isn't having operational inefficiencies and struggles trying to figure out how to make it work.

"Those that jump on board earlier, sooner than later they're going to be much more successful, in my opinion, because they're going to have time to work out the bugs and all those kind of things before it's 100 percent."

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