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Status Report, Vol. 45, No. 6 | June 19, 2010 Subscribe

Agency rejects recorder rule for all big rigs

The latest move by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) to tackle the problem of too-tired truckers amounts to no more than window dressing. Electronic onboard recorders that automatically track truckers' time on the road and rest breaks could reduce the problem of doctored paper logbooks and help curb work-rule violations that can lead to crashes. The Institute and others have repeatedly recommended recorders for all carriers. Instead, FMCSA has mandated them for just the worst habitual offenders, which account for a very small percentage of truckers.

Under the final rule issued in April, commercial truck and bus carriers must install electronic recorders fleetwide and use them for at least 2 years if violations of hours-of-service rules are uncovered in 10 percent or more of fleet records during a single compliance review. The requirement goes into effect June 2012.

FMCSA is considering a wider mandate likely to focus on carriers considered high risk, such as buses, hazardous materials haulers, and new carriers.

"If the agency were committed to safety the U.S. would have an onboard recorder rule for all carriers," says Anne McCartt, Institute senior vice president for research. "This piecemeal approach doesn't begin to address the scope of the problem."

The rule covers more carriers than initially proposed but doesn't go far enough. FMCSA estimates that nearly 5,700 interstate carriers will be affected after the rule's first year. There were more than 600,000 interstate carriers in the United States in November 2009, according to FMCSA and the American Trucking Associations. Studies of long-distance truckers indicate work rules commonly are flouted. Drivers pressured to meet tight deadlines often doctor paper records so they will pass muster with roadside inspectors.

About a third of drivers interviewed by the Institute in 2003, 2004, and 2005 admitted to often or sometimes omitting hours from their logs. One in 5 drivers reported falling asleep at the wheel during the previous month (see "Trucker fatigue: 1 of 5 drivers reports falling asleep at the wheel," Oct. 7, 2006, and "Trucker fatigue isn't being reduced under 2004 rule," July 16, 2005). Investigations by the National Transportation Safety Board, which advocates recorders for all large trucks, have repeatedly found that some drivers falsify logs, and some carriers don't closely monitor their drivers' hours-of-service compliance.

FMCSA says it will flag carriers that must use recorders, but inspectors say it's easier to enforce rules that apply to all drivers. Because there's no single design standard for the devices — just a performance standard — some enforcement groups question whether the technology and training inspectors need to read and analyze recorder data will be readily available. Concerns also have been raised about technical specifications that leave open the possibility that drivers might be able to tamper with electronic logs.

The Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance says all carriers should be subject to the requirement. This group represents motor carrier safety officials and industry representatives in Canada, the United States, and Mexico.

"We believe a universal mandate of electronic logging technology is critical so we can ensure a more reliable method of assessing compliance and enforcing hours of service," Francis "Buzzy" France, president of the alliance and Maryland State Police administrative officer, told a U.S. Senate transportation subcommittee in April. France said the new rule doesn't go far enough to address technical considerations such as data security, driver identification, tampering, device compatibility, and a standard interface so officers can easily read data.

Last fall FMCSA agreed to begin work on a new hours-of-service rule that could allow truckers more rest. The deal is part of a settlement with Public Citizen, Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, the Truck Safety Coalition, and the Teamsters, which sued to block work rules issued in 2003 (see "Truck safety isn't being served by the agency in charge of it," Feb. 14, 2009). FMCSA plans a final rule no later than July 2011, administrator Anne Ferro said in April.

Electronic recorders are required in big rigs in the European Union, Japan, South Korea, Brazil, and Venezuela. Work is under way in Canada toward a universal mandate.

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