The technology truckers love to hate

When researching my recent column on how the trucking industry has resisted moving to electronic driver logbooks I was struck by the level of fear and suspicion between the small independents and the major for hire carriers.

Truckers by nature are fiercely independent and they don't like being told what to do. They also face impossible cost pressures that force many to drive far more hours in a day than may be safe - or legal. Replacing paper logbooks with electronic ones could improve compliance. But faced with rising fuel costs and EPA mandated equipment, most see information technology as just another cost burden.

Electronic logbooks could make hours of service and other data logging faster and easier. Widespread use could also make roads safer by making it harder to falsify driver logs and drive beyond the 11 hours legally allowed per day per Federal Moter Carrier Safety Administration rules. But in the battle between these groups, electronic driver logs are viewed as a competitive weapon - or threat.

The large carrier view is that the smaller companies cheat. "We believe that most of the [smaller] fleets, that they are more likely to be running illegal," says Kay Palmer, CIO at JB Hunt Transport Service Inc., one of the big four for-hire carriers. She says that J B Hunt, and the independent trucking firms with which it works, are already in compliance. "We're just trying to find an easier way to do it," she says of complying with hours of service rules. But she doesn't want to use electronic driver logs to do that unless everyone does.

Joan Claybrook, president of Public Citizen and a former administrator at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, says the problem of falsifying logbooks is rampant. "[Drivers] keep one set of books for law enforcement and one for their pay," she says.

Safety inspection records show that there is indeed a problem in the industry when it comes to compliance. Of 1,251 compliance violations given out to truckers last year, 651 were given for false reports of driver record of duty status, according to an FMCSA report. FMCSA summary statistics also show that out of 9,576 compliance reviews, 22.4% were "conditional" and another 4.4% were "unsatisfactory." This is a concern because tired drivers cause accidents, and incidents involving 80,000 lb tractor trailer rigs tend to be nasty. In 2006, there were 4,995 large truck fatalities in the U.S.

The American Trucking Associations represents the large fleet owners. Jim Tipka, director of public affairs, says that so long as truckers had to keep track of paper fuel and toll receipts anyway, paper logs made sense. The technology, he said, added a cost without adding a return. While fuel cards and automated toll systems provide electronic receipts today, he says the government needs to change its paper retention requirements. "The time may be right [for electronic onboard recorders], but it's the government that has to do that," he says. Making them a requirement will "level the playing field," says Kay.

The Owner Operator Independent Drivers Association (OOIDA), which represents small fleets and individual truckers, is opposed to any mandatory regulation in this regard. Rick Craig, director of regulatory affairs for the OOIDA Foundation, says 96% of fleets consist of 20 trucks or less. Many of OOIDA's members are independents that own their own truck. If they break the rules their livelihood is on the line so so he says they don't need an electronic monitor looking over their shoulders. "That level playing field thing, you have $4 million company that wants to level the playing field so that they can compete against a $45,000 a year driver," he says. He worries that EOBRs will add costs and force independents out of business. "We're opposed to the mandated use of technology," he says flatly.

But where does that leave public safety? Is cheating rampant? "The country would probably come to a standstill if EOBRs were mandated on all trucks," he acknowledges.

Craig says the problem isn't just about independent drivers. He alleges that drivers working for the major carriers are paid so poorly that they are forced to cheat to get by - a charge that spokespersons for both Schneider National and J B Hunt deny. Craig says with what they're paid by the mile drivers for large carriers can't make a living without cheating. "Is he going to make $200 a week when he's on the road for 12 days straight? He has to find a way to get where he's going. And if he has to fudge a logbook, it's been known to be done."

According to the ATA's Web site, compensation starts at "about $40,000" and experienced drivers can earn $60,000 to $65,000 per year.

A former driver for one of the top three carriers told me he used to cook the books regularly. He was paid per mile, not by the hour, so traffic congestion in the Northeast would cut substantially into his miles per day. So if after 11 hours he was only halfway to his stop over point, he would enter his "official" arrival time - say, 6:00 p.m. - and then drive until he arrived at 11:00 p.m. Total drive time: 16 hours. At that point hours of service rules say the driver is supposed to rest for 10 hours. But to get a jump on the next day's leg he might leave at 3:00 a.m., getting just four hours of rest.

Mike is a regular route driver for a major fleet with 30 years of experience. "Little guys cheat more than the big guys do [but] everybody does," he wrote via an e-mail. He's doubtful that electronic logbooks will be adopted unless they're mandatory. "It's a little naive to think an industry that has looked the other way about logbook cheating for 70 years is going to change without a federal mandate," he says. He says his current employer forces him to drive legal, but it wasn't always that way. "For 30 yeards I worked for a company who used to pay us for crossing the Delaware river bridge automatically because they didn't want the receipt, and the only hours of service requirement we had was to drive through West Middlesex, Pennsylvania with a legal logbook," he says.

The irony is that even as drivers shun EOBRs, adoption of other technologies could make independents more profitable. MIke says truckers with onboard laptops and wireless internet expense software, logbook software and GPS technology can gain a substantial edge. "With a Verizon or Sprint air card a small independent trucker can enhance his profits easily by 20% just by doing something simple like [using]," he says. Whoever successfully markets that to the independents, he says, "will become a billionaire."

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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