Fighting Fatique with Electronic Logs

Sept. 24, 2014

When are drivers too tired to drive? Only they really know, but federal Hours of Service regulations and supporting driver’s log books try to keep them from becoming dangerously fatigued by limiting their time behind the wheel and doing other work. Fleets plan driver assignments and entire operations based on how much time a driver can be “On-Duty, Driving.” In recent years, that’s been 11 hours per day and, since last year, not more than 70 hours in a week.

There’s also a “Restart” provision that allows a driver to begin a new work week after taking off 34 hours, including two five-hour rest periods that includes the hours of 1 a.m. to 5 a.m. of two consecutive days. The government says this is based on scientific research involving circadian rhythms: the body’s awake-sleep pattern that’s most healthy if sleep comes in the wee hours. Trouble is, people can’t always sleep when the rules say they should, and they sometimes need a nap when the rules penalize them for taking one. For this and other reasons, many in the industry are protesting the Restart.

Drivers working locally, within a 100-air-mile radius of their home bases, needn’t worry about it, because they don’t have to keep daily logs. The exemption is based on the idea that drivers who return home every night will almost surely sleep and be rested by morning, when they go back to work. That includes most construction truck drivers, though their fleets might require them to keep log books anyway.

Every trucker who’s kept logs knows that they can be fiction, because actual driving times can be fudged. Officers inspecting the logs will ask for food or fuel receipts to support supposed periods of Off-Duty or On-Duty, Not Driving. Those can be dummied, too. A cop can see when a driver is fatigued, but that might not be sufficient basis to declare him out-of-service.

A way around this is an “electronic logging device,” or ELD, which is an on-board recorder that notes movement of a truck, as well as times when it pauses and shuts down. ELDs duplicate paper logs, but cannot be easily falsified by drivers and thus show honest accounts of what they’re doing. That means they and their companies must operate legally and, it’s hoped, more safely. Also called “paperless logs,” they’ve been used by some major freight haulers since the 1990s. Many trucking executives favor ELDs, because they force everyone to operate legally, and not give a competitive advantage to those who squeeze more hours out of trucks and drivers.

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration is proposing that ELDs be used by anyone who keeps a paper log and any company who employs or contracts with those drivers. This could start in two years, and there’d be a two-year phase-in period allowing truck owners to acquire and set them up. Experts note that current electronic controls on trucks could be used to support ELDs, which require readouts for inspectors and police officers to see during roadside checks.

Will ELDs, or even fastidious maintaining of a paper log book, prevent most accidents attributed to fatigue? Maybe. But consider the recent high-profile wreck in which a Walmart semi rammed a van-limousine carrying a well-known comedian, injuring him and killing a fellow entertainer. Police say the driver had commuted 700 miles from his home in Georgia to the company terminal in Delaware before starting his shift. He had been behind a wheel for 24 hours before the crash in New Jersey, even though his logged driving time was within limits. No logging method can account for such off-duty activity, and it’s difficult for an employer to control it.

Another federal program that’s caught heated criticism is called Compliance, Safety, Accountability, or CSA, which affects any operator with a federal DOT number. It’s based on inspections of trucks and drivers, and the resulting “scores” could trigger enforcement action.  The scores for drivers and companies are posted on a website for all to see, including safety zealots and shippers. Trucking executives and drivers have complained about scores being unfairly assigned and the information being misinterpreted. In the latest industry-government exchange, trucking trade groups have requested that CSA scores be kept confidential.