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Ask the right questions: ELDs are designed to ensure compliance with HOS, not for use as life-saving devices

Cliff Abbott

According to the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) 2023 Evaluation Plan, determining the effectiveness of electronic logging devices (ELDs) is top of mind for the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA).

Specifically, the question to be answered by some point in fiscal year 2024 is this: Were the intended safety outcomes of the ELD rule achieved?

In the ELD Final Rule, published in the Federal Register on December 16, 2015, the FMCSA estimated that carrier enforcement of the use of ELDs to record hours of service (HOS) would save an average of 26 lives per year.

The number of large truck crashes avoided each year was estimated at 1,844. Undoubtedly, the final result of the FMCSA evaluation will involve mathematical formulas and adjustments for various factors, but it’s possible to take a sneak peek using fatality numbers provided by NHTSA.

The rule became effective for commercial motor vehicles (CMVs) December 18, 2017, so 2018 would be the first year for which statistics would be applicable. In 2018, fatalities in crashes involving large trucks and buses increased 1.7% over 2017. The following year, fatalities ticked up another 0.6%. Then, in 2020, when fewer vehicles were on the road during the COVID-19 pandemic and vehicle miles traveled declined, fatalities in crashes with CMVs went down by 2.8%.

When the economy rebounded in 2021, so did the number of vehicles on the highway. Fatality crashes involving CMVs shot up 12.9%. Projections for 2022 by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) indicate a small (0.3%) decrease in total highway fatalities but don’t break those numbers down by vehicle type.

At first glance, it doesn’t appear that ELDs have resulted in a reduction of highway fatalities at all. But while the DOT is working on that evaluation, David Heller, TCA’s senior vice president of safety and government affairs, has a different take.

Heller believes they’re asking the wrong question.

“When you look at the ELD in a nutshell, it’s a tool,” he explained. “It measures compliance with the HOS regulations. It is those regulations, the (hours spent actively driving), that are designed to save lives — not the ELD in itself.”

If the government agencies and the trucking industry want to save lives on the highway through use of ELDs, they should be looking at HOS regulations — and those regulations, Heller says, are inefficient.

“We’re not any getting anywhere close to what that 11 hours of drive time actually is,” he said. “We’re averaging somewhere in the neighborhood of six-and-a-half hours of drive time. That’s so insane. Why aren’t we having the conversation of making those regulations more flexible?”

Every carrier knows where those hours are going: Detention time, traffic congestion, weather, inspections and other things take valuable driving time from each driver’s day. While each of these could be addressed, Heller thinks one change to the HOS regulations would help drivers cope with all of them.

“I would work on flexibility regarding the HOS and increasing the splits, making that 10-hour rest break either a six/four or five/five split so the drivers have more flexibility of how to address their day as that day presents itself,” he said.

Such a change would require modifying both the 11-hour driving rule and the 14-hour daily work period. These modifications could provide the driver with more ability to, for example, spend time resting while avoiding a rush hour period in a metro area or a traffic jam caused by an accident up ahead.

Planning what time a driving period ends has a benefit, too.

“It’s tricky to find truck parking these days,” Heller said. Splitting the rest period might allow drivers to arrive at their selected rest spot before the spaces are all filled, or to delay arrival until a time when drivers are leaving those spaces.”

To be sure, splitting the rest period is allowed — but with mandates of two periods of at least seven and three hours. Heller says six/four, or even five/five, would be a great place to start. Unfortunately, efforts to make HOS regulations more flexible aren’t a priority right now for regulators.

“I will tell you, there’s no lobbying efforts in regard to this right now,” Heller said. “The agency is starting to partake in a detention time study, which will probably see the results of that study sometime in 2025, I believe.”

The results of that detention time study could prompt a proposed rule change, but drivers and carriers must still operate under the current rules until that happens. And the study isn’t likely to shed any new light on the topic.

“If it’s anything like the previous three or four studies, then at that point you know, certainly, detention is a very real and prevalent issue in our industry. We have to do something about it,” he remarked.

As an example, Australia does things a little differently. The country mandates seven-hour “non-working” periods without specifying whether they are “sleeper berth” or “off duty,” and no more than 17 hours between non-work periods. Rather than a seven-day or eight-day rule, Australia allows 168 hours within any 14-day period and mandates two periods of 24 hours of non-work time. There are other regulations, including some differences between drivers on Australia’s highway system and those operating in the Outback, but the drivers generally have much more flexibility in scheduling than their U.S. counterparts.

“You can’t stop and have a 10-hour break in 110 degrees (in the Outback). It just doesn’t work,” explained Dean Croke, principal freight analyst for DAT Freight & Analytics, who drove for years in Australia before moving to the U.S.

“So, what they do is they allow a lot of flexibility. They take the focus off the daily limit, and they give you a two-week period of hours to work,” Croke said. “Some days you work more; some days you work less, so it’s a very flexible HOS system.”

Here in the U.S., most carriers and many drivers agree that the use of ELDs has greatly reduced many of the problems that plagued the paper log system. The task of collecting and auditing daily records is much easier, and falsification is more difficult with ELDs.

“The ELD is a necessary tool based on where we once were, and it certainly highlights what the drivers are doing with their day,” Heller said. “But the tool, in and of itself, is not designed to save lives. It’s the HOS regulations that are designed to do that.”

While there are currently no efforts to overhaul HOS regulations in the U.S., Heller believes the issue will be addressed in the future.

“Nothing moves quickly in government — it never did, and it never will,” Heller said. “Could there be something in our future? Certainly, I think you have to acknowledge that flexibility would benefit the drivers as a whole.”