Federal regulators need to revisit electronic tracking rule for truckers

Federal regulators need to revisit electronic tracking rule for truckers
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It’s no exaggeration to say trucking is the backbone of the U.S. economy, given how heavily we rely on over-the-road carriers for fast and affordable transportation of goods and products. The industry estimates truckers are responsible for carrying 70 percent of U.S. freight by weight.

However, a federal regulation that took effect in December is sending shock waves through both the trucking world and the industries that rely on truckers to ship freight. Unfortunately, the end result will cost consumers in higher product costs.

But the good news is that some modifications to the new rule could readily improve the situation.

At issue is a Department of Transportation rule requiring electronic logging devices (ELD) aboard all commercial trucks. The ELD is a web-enabled tracking device connected to the truck’s engine that collects data on the driver’s hours of service and duty status. Drivers are allowed to be on duty for 14 hours per day. In that window, they can drive a maximum of 11 hours, and after the 14 hours they are required to stop for 10 hours. Drivers who exceed their service hours face stiff fines and penalties.

Passed as part of major transportation legislation in 2012, the ELD mandate was intended to improve safety, since precise tracking of service hours would reduce driver fatigue. If only it were that simple.

Unfortunately, the mandate’s rigidity makes it impossible for drivers to respond to unforeseeable events like slowdowns from traffic congestion, inclement weather, long loading and unloading times, and so forth. Even time spent looking for a parking spot at a truck stop, or moving the truck to make room for others, can cost a driver precious time on the ELD tracker. Instead of using common sense and independent judgment to respond to unpredictable conditions, they’re forced into a high-stress race against the clock.

In other cases, drivers and fleet managers have reported difficulties with the ELD technology, like hardware and software issues and problems with connectivity when driving in remote areas.

Though well intended, the implementation of the one-size-fits all ELD mandate has resulted in confusion, frustration and anxiety.

Adding to the confusion, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA), the DOT agency responsible for implementing the mandate, has issued exemptions for selected trucking niches and individual firms. Exempting some industry players, but not others, only adds to the confusion, while underscoring the perception that this regulation was “not ready for prime time.” Even closer to home, an ambiguous and inappropriately narrow definition of agriculture has sown seeds of compliance confusion across the country.  

But the new regulation isn’t just confusing and frustrating drivers and fleet managers. It’s also affecting industries that rely on truckers for affordable, on-time delivery of goods and products. The horticulture industry is a case in point.

Growers and wholesalers rely on trucking to transport plants and other agricultural goods you find at your local nursery. Plants are vulnerable and highly perishable, they need to be handled carefully, and they require timely access to markets. These delicate items can’t be stored for extended periods like many food and fiber crops — even a delay of a day or two can make a difference.

Our members have already started sharing stories of how the inflexible new regulations are disrupting shipping and delivery schedules, making it more difficult to manage nursery inventory and ultimately driving up costs. For example, our members in Oregon report shipping costs jumping by 50 percent, and a sales manager for a nursery servicing Midwest buyers reports transportation cost increases of up to 70 percent. Other industries that rely on trucking to move products report the same dynamic.

This flawed regulation needs fixing. Instead of a long and growing list of ad hoc exemptions and waivers, FMCSA should delay full implementation of the rule for a reasonable period—say, six months, or longer if warranted—and consult with industry leaders and drivers to determine how to make the rules more sensible and flexible. Thus far, enforcement of the ELD mandate has been relatively relaxed as fleets are brought up to the new standard, but “hard” enforcement is scheduled to begin April 1.

We believe the ELD mandate is ultimately fixable with a few proper modifications. These modifications should allow drivers greater flexibility in logging their service hours, so they can better respond to unforeseen events or unusual circumstances. Such flexibility can be achieved while still upholding public safety.

The ELD mandate’s initial implementation may have been rocky, but the problems can be solved by giving drivers and fleet managers the flexibility needed to get the job done, reducing costs while ensuring safety on the road. Federal regulators should listen to truckers and the affected industries, then step back and do what’s needed to get this right.

Tal Coley is director of government affairs for AmericanHort, a national trade organization representing the horticulture industry with nearly 16,000 member and affiliated businesses.