Tech and the Tired Trucker

In April 2004, an 18-wheel tractor-trailer owned by Swift Transportation ran a stop sign at a highway intersection near Hutchinson, Kan., and slammed into a Chevy Suburban, killing a Wichita businessman. The man's family sued, claiming that the driver had been fatigued. Swift, which relied on its drivers to keep paper logbooks to

record their hours, couldn't produce the documentation. It lost the case. In December, the courts imposed a $36.5 million judgment against the company.

Technologies that could have preserved those records and possibly prevented the accident have existed for years. But three of the four largest for-hire trucking firms don't use them, nor do most other large interstate trucking companies -- yet.

A fully loaded 18-wheeler can weigh 80,000 pounds, so it's no surprise that accidents often result in fatalities -- nearly 5,000 in 2006 alone. "Many of the deaths are related to tired drivers," says Joan Claybrook, president of Public Citizen and a former administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Drivers are required to keep logs to prove that they are following federal hours-of-service rules that stipulate how many hours they can work per day and the maximum hours of continuous driving allowed. Some drivers break those rules and manipulate paper logbooks to cover their tracks. Claybrook asserts that the practice is widespread.

Electronic driver logs, also known as electronic onboard recorders (EOBR), do away with paper logbooks. The devices typically include a screen and a keyboard where the driver can input activity. That data is matched to a GPS device and vehicle sensors that continuously monitor the vehicle's location and operation and can transmit that data back to the carrier's operations center.

"It's impossible to fudge the numbers. You can't claim you're resting when the truck is moving," says Donald Broughton, a transportation industry analyst at investment banking firm Avondale Partners.

But carriers make money by delivering the maximum number of loads in the minimum time. Enforcing hours-of-service rules more tightly could reduce per-truck revenues -- and profitability -- if drivers are breaking the rules. Some drivers complain that with the current per-mile compensation levels, they can't make a living without bending the rules. Adopting EOBRs not only might reduce revenue per truck, but also could require an increase in driver compensation.

But one carrier adopted electronic driver logs and other safety- and performance-related technologies long ago -- and now uses those technologies to competitive advantage. Broughton calls Omaha-based Werner Enterprises "best in class" for its use of information and communications technologies to reduce costs and improve profitability. The for-hire operator is able to more efficiently schedule its fleet because it can better track the number of hours its drivers are available. "Only a few companies can run as many miles and generate as much revenue per truck as Werner does," Broughton says.

Requiring EOBRs would force carriers to move forward in lock step, achieving safety goals without putting any carrier at a competitive disadvantage, says Kay Palmer, CIO at carrier J.B. Hunt Transport Services, which is testing EOBRs. That may be the direction the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration is heading.

"Electronic recorders have enough political pressure that they will probably be mandated," says Jim Tipka, vice president of engineering at the industry trade group American Trucking Associations.

If EOBRs are required, for-hire carrier fleets may find themselves playing catch-up with Werner. That could give this early mover an edge as its competitors adapt their own business models to a world where drivers can't improve productivity by running illegal hours anymore.

Robert L. Mitchell is a Computerworld national correspondent. Contact him at robert_mitchell@computerworld.com.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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