by Hal Mattern
When federal regulators issued a final rule in 2015 requiring that electronic logging devices ( ELDs) be installed on commercial trucks and buses by the end of 2017, opponents responded with complaints and legal challenges.
Among their complaints: ELDs would be so expensive they would drive small operators out of business; they would violate drivers’ privacy and subject them to harassment by their employers; and they would be too complicated for tech-challenged older drivers. There were lawsuits challenging the mandate and congressional efforts to delay the rule amid claims that the technology wasn’t ready for prime time.
But despite efforts to derail the regulation, ELDs became mandatory on Dec. 1, 2017, with full enforcement beginning on April 1, 2018.
A year later, some motorcoach operators are wondering what all the fuss was about. While they acknowledge there have been glitches and challenges complying with the mandate, they see ELDs as more of a positive than a negative.
- “The reduction of paperwork is great,” said David Moody, general manager of Holiday Tours, Inc. of Randleman, North Carolina. “We don’t have to chase drivers down to get their paperwork because it is now all on computers.”
- “Overall, I’m pleased with ELDs,” said Brian Scott, president of Largo, Florida-based Escot Bus Lines.
- Dennis Streif, vice president of Vandalia Bus Lines in Caseyville, Illinois, added we’re “better off with ELDs than with paper logs.”
The driving force behind the ELD mandate was to replace paper logs for tracking driver hours of service and records of duty status. Safety advocates have long criticized paper logs because they could be falsified, resulting in too many fatigued drivers—mostly long-haul truckers—on the road, raising the potential for serious accidents.
The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, which issued the mandate, said improved hours-of-service compliance through ELDs would significantly reduce accident and fatality rates associated with commercial motor vehicles. That hasn’t proven to be the case—so far—according to a recent survey by researchers from Northeastern University, the University of Arkansas and Michigan State University that showed no decrease in crash rates. There have been other successes… and challenges.
The run-up to the new rule was challenging for many motorcoach operators. For one thing, there were initially only a few vendors with ELD experience, and they were frustrated because they said FMCSA was slow to identify the technical specifications necessary for such devices to comply with the federal mandate.
Several vendors with little or no ELD experience soon entered the market, and because they were allowed by FMCSA to “self-certify” that their devices were compliant, operators needed to be extra vigilant when choosing an ELD provider. Many operators had to switch to new providers after the first year. A survey by the United Motorcoach Association found that 37 percent of respondents would not purchase the same system if they were starting over, while 29 percent were likely to change providers in the next 12 months.
Escot Bus Lines is one of the operators switching to a new vendor.
“The company we went with couldn’t meet our needs,” Scott said. “It wasn’t updating the system fast enough. That’s been a headache and has created challenges. A lot of companies went into this thinking it was easy, and the FMCSA wasn’t policing them very well.”
Streif of Vandalia Bus Lines said he was happy overall with his ELD system but had to contract with a secondary vender to add software to produce driver vehicle inspection reports. He said his current system requires that drivers make a paper printout of their pre- and post-trip inspections, while the new system records that information electronically.
The UMA survey found that 27 percent of operators installed Automatic Onboard Recording Devices, or AOBRDs, instead of ELDs. AOBRDs are based on older technology than is used in ELDs, which are more precise in tracking driver hours of service. Because many operators had been using AOBRDs when the ELD mandate was issued, FMCSA grandfathered AOBRD software on existing and new vehicles through Dec. 16, 2019, when all vehicles need to convert to ELDs.
Although no specific figures are available to back it up, it is suspected that some operators who thought they were getting ELDs actually ended up with AOBRDs and now have to pay to replace them.
Moody of Holiday Tours said his company chose to install AOBRDs instead of ELDs on its 74 motorcoaches “to give the ELD technology time to get the bugs out. We were afraid there would be issues with ELDs.”
He said the company planned to begin testing ELDs and convert to the devices before the December deadline.
Glitches in the ELD technology did occur, although most seem to have been resolved, operators said. Among the problems reported by operators are tablets losing their charge, vehicle location units failing and ELDs interfering with transmissions. ELDs also don’t work well on older motorcoaches manufactured before 2000.
“Nothing is bulletproof,” Streif said. “But we have a high degree of satisfaction with them and work around the problems. If I hear of a system that works 100 percent of the time, I’d be interested in looking at it.”
Operators having repeated problems with their ELDs and vendors can file complaints with the FMCSA, and the agency can revoke the certifications of ELDs failing to comply with regulations. But of the hundreds of devices on the FMCSA’s self-certification list, only two have been revoked, and they both self-revoked.
There also has been an unintended consequence of ELDs: Because they track vehicles in real time, there is no margin of error in recording driver hours of service. Paper logs tracked driving time in 15-minute increments, so drivers had a little leeway. However, if drivers using ELDs go even five minutes over their driving limit, they are considered to be in violation. That has forced operators to add a second driver to some trips or to send out relay drivers to take over the rest of the trip.
The UMA survey found that 56 percent of operators are using two drivers on trips that used to need only one. “This is troubling considering the acute shortage of drivers,” the survey’s executive summary noted.
Operators say that despite such issues, there are more positives to ELDs than negatives. They like the fact that ELDs can track vehicle engine diagnostics and are able to monitor their vehicles in real time instead of finding out a week later that there was an hours-of-service problem.
They also say Department of Transportation inspections and compliance reviews go more smoothly because they can just send the required documents and data by email to Washington or to a regional office.
But the biggest upside to ELDs has been paperwork reduction. Smith said Greyhound drivers used to turn in their paper logs every 13 days, then the back office staff would have to comb through them. Now logs are available the next day. Both owners and drivers like getting rid of paper logs, Streif said.
“They like ELDs to the point that if the devices are not working, and they have to use paper logs, they are unhappy,” he said. “Some new drivers aren’t even familiar with having to fill out paper logs. Our drivers don’t see much downside to ELDs.”