EOBR Mandate: Benefits and Problems

Mike Smitka
by Mike Smitka

By Louisa Ortiz (Junior, Ketchikan Alaska) and Mike Smitka (the Prof, Detroit Michigan and Lexington Virginia) edited from her post of May 11th, 2014 in Economics 244 (link here). This is the latest in a series of (edited) posts by my students, many of whom got into blogging and all of whom performed well in a class that while on the road or with a visiting speaker could begin with an 8 am departure and not end until a 10 pm return. Kudos to them!

Disclaimer: we have no particular knowledge of these EOBR services; they were chosen for their decorative value.

Truck accidents can be horrific, and Washington and Lee is just off I-81, which has some of the highest density truck traffic in the country. My son was forced off the road while commuting to school – with a police car there to witness it. A Japanese tourist passing through the county was less lucky, rear-ended by a truck as he tried to merge. His wife in the rear seat didn’t have her seat belt on (typical in Japan), and was thrown from the vehicle, dying later that evening. (I was called in as an interpreter, small town networks being what they are.)

In many ways it was the quintessential accident, a chain of chance events. The truck driver was under lots of pressure. Driving big trucks was the only profession he’d ever had. He’d never had an accident, indeed he’d never had a ticket, but the Canadian company that employed him was in bankruptcy. He’d driven more than the legal number of hours; likely he’d dozed off. The driver of the car was lost, and it was getting dark. Again, there happened to be a policeman there who saw the accident; he claimed the car was traveling at a normal speed, but I got to know the driver and suspect he was likely going closer to 35 mph, not 55+ mph. Oh, and before I forget, the driver and the daughter who was traveling with them both had their seatbelts on and were uninjured: buckle up!

Now drivers aren’t supposed to be behind the wheel until they can’t keep their eyes open. Unfortunately the relevant regulatory authorities have faced budget cuts, not increases, even as the combination of deregulation and the container revolution and sheer economic growth touched off a veritable explosion of trucking. It’s easy to set up shell companies, lease trucks and hire “self employed” drivers on contract, and then stop carrying insurance while pressuring drivers to bend every rule in the book. With our Great Recession lingering, the marginal driver operates in fear of his job – most involved in this are (by hearsay) eastern Europeans, some surely illegals – and so abuses are rife, and inspections of vehicles and driver logs are few and far between. When one does occur, or there’s an accident, the owners of the company can’t be tracked down, with leased trucks they can just disappear, and the drivers are independent contractors, so they’re individually liable.

Policy may be hamstrung by politics, but our bureaucrats are generally public servants, and the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration does what they can. Our knowledge benefited from a conversation with Ms. Kaitlin Brown, a lawyer who specializes in trucking accidents, during a W&L alumni event in Detroit. [Washington and Lee has a law school alongside its undergrad liberal arts component. Tapping our alumni network is useful!] In particular, the federal government plans to mandate electronic on-board recorders (EOBRs) for interstate commercial motor vehicles to monitor hours-of-service compliance, beginning in 2016.

The EOBRs, already used by multiple trucking firms, have many uses. One focus is tracking a trucker’s hours, thus push drivers to take mandatory (and sensible) breaks. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration hopes this leads to less accidents. EOBRs also keep in memory the ninety seconds before and after a hard breaking incident. Trucking agencies currently use this to provide insight to what actually happened in a crash (and to use this information in court). More generally, EOBRs allow a trucking agency to track all of their vehicle and monitor their movement across the country. They can look at an individual truck’s speed history, fuel efficiency performance, cruise control usage, as well as a list of all hard breaking incidences. This will allow the companies’ safety managers to better monitor drivers’ habits and hopefully lead to safer behaviors. [The US is not in the vanguard; police check truckers in Canada for speeding by downloading their in-vehicle recorders, so quite sensibly trucks there install governors to keep them below 104 kph = 65 mph.]

Although there are many benefits to EOBRs, some issues that need to be worked out. Their use seems to benefit most of the larger trucking companies, because at $1500 to $2000 a vehicle; independent drivers and smaller companies say that EOBRs are just too expensive. They would prefer to continue doing their logs by hand. On a different note, some individual drivers are speaking up, saying that the oversight by the trucking companies takes away the driver’s sense of independence and some of the pleasure of their job. Drivers are also saying that instead of EOBRs being used to limit the number of hours spent driving, companies might use them to penalize those who drive less than the maximum number of hours.

As federal regulation goes, the implementation of EOBRs in all tucks might allow law enforcement to check for speeding by requesting to see the log [Cf. the Prof’s discussion of truckers in Canada.] This would likely decrease speeding, but would it be excessive government intervention? Why at trucks? Eventually, following this same path, all passenger vehicles might be required to have the same technology installed and all vehicles would be subject to having their logs checked.

As Ms. Brown discussed, EOBR’s have the potential to create safer highways by limiting the number of tired, overworked truck drivers, but there are still many issues that need to be worked out. Will the companies or individuals be required to bear the cost? How will this affect the individual drivers versus the companies that they work for – will drivers be made the “fall guys” for companyies trying to eke out the last penny of profit?

Finally, this is just one example of where the trucking industry is likely setting precedents for passenger cars, which also have recorders that can provide vehicle status at the time of an accident. Trucking also leads in the commercialization of some of the features of autonomous vehicles, with adaptive cruise control, blind spot detection and sway mitigation and (in the EU) truck “trains”. To know where cars are going, watch trucks!

    For more see EOBRs see:
  • Overdrive, 10 Problems with EOBRs. Overdrive advertises itself as “the Premier Resource for Online Trucking News”
  • Brown, Kaitlin, Timothy Groustra and Jim Rodi. “The EOBR Mandate and its Potential Impact on Safety, Claims Handling and Underwriting.” The Transportation Lawyer. 15:1 (2013), 47-49.
  • Omnitracs, a fleet management solutions company at EOBR 101
  • Pedigree Technology’s ELog
  • EOBR.com
  • XRSCorp on Automatic On-Board Recording Devices, which notes that there is in the narrow regulatory sense no such thing as an “EOBR”.

Mike Smitka
Mike Smitka

Mike Smitka is an economist at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia. He's been a judge of the Automotive News PACE supplier innovation awards since they began in 1994. His household's vehicles are a 2014 Chevy Cruze, a 2013 Honda CR-V and a 1988 Chevy pickup. Find his auto industry course at <a href="http://econ244.academic.wlu.edu/">Econ 244</a>; he also blogs with David Ruggles at <a href="http://autosandeconomics.blogspot.com">Autos and Economics</a>.

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  • Wmba Wmba on Aug 08, 2014

    The article mentions regulations in Canada twice. Yet no mention is included in the references, no doubt because the assertions are incorrect. Canada is composed of 10 provinces and is not some amorphous blob. Each province has their own motor carrier regulations which are by no means uniform between jurisdictions. The federal government regulates interprovincial trade, and in consultation with the provinces, who perform all inspections, tries to regulate the motor carrier trade when it crosses provincial or US borders. There is no uniform set of rules across our country. A brief Google search also shows that EOBRs are not yet implemented, nor is there a uniform speed limiter program. Individual provinces may have them, but that is up to them. The Feds try to harmonize regulations, but nothing much has happened due to each province having its own ideas. You can read about the "research" papers presented here and their accompanying links: https://www.tc.gc.ca/eng/motorvehiclesafety/roadsafety-motor-carriers-commercial-vehicles-drivers-1312.htm It's simplistic to base arguments for change in your country by pretending that another country has certain rules, without even understanding how regulations in that country are, in fact, applied - and who is responsible. The article also is poorly edited: "hard breaking", "companyies". Really about high school level, frankly, judging from the overall effort as referenced above in assuming Canada has a monolithic set of regulations. You see, I know two motor carrier inspectors here in my province, and what is described in the article is just not happening. I wish it were.

  • Mike Smitka Mike Smitka on Aug 11, 2014

    Thanks, I'll double-check on the Canada story, my friend drives into Ontario, possibly Quebec but probably not other provinces. I push the boundaries of my knowledge in posts, hoping to learn from the comments - as I did here. So to reiterate, thanks to wmba and the others, including more details on I-81.

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