Dec. 27–WASHINGTON — A seemingly innocuous federal regulation is stoking a deep divide among the tractor trailer drivers hauling through Dallas and other locales across the U.S.
Starting in mid-December, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration started requiring commercial drivers to outfit their trucks with electronic logging devices to replace the paper time cards the industry has used for decades.
The rule, in short, is a tech-centered approach to ensure that drivers take required rest breaks.
Advocates, including the Texas Trucking Association, say it’s a simple safety measure that will allow drivers to be more efficient. But others, including many smaller carriers, argue that it’s a costly burden that could make the roads less safe.
And even though the rules are in effect, one Texas Republican continues to press the case.
Woodville Rep. Brian Babin has urged the Trump administration to reconsider the mandate. He’s pitched the new regulation as the “Dodd-Frank of the trucking industry,” comparing the provision to the Obama-era banking rules that many Republicans loathe.
And he’s worried that “this thing is going to hurt the economy.”
“It is intrusion by big brother in its worst form,” said Babin, who had a commercial driver’s license for years.
Eighteen-wheelers are a familiar site to anybody traveling along on Interstate 35 or any other freeway in and around Dallas. That omnipresence — and just the sheer size of the trucks — means the industry is under strict regulation.
The federal government has a bevy of “hours-of-service” rules aimed at keeping sleepy drivers from getting behind the wheel. A freight trucker, for example, can drive only a maximum of 11 hours after taking 10 consecutive hours off duty.
And paper time sheets have been the proof of compliance.
But technological advances have brought about electronic logging devices, which can cost from a couple hundred bucks to more than $1,000. And even before the new regulation went into effect, some trucking companies were making the switch away from pencil and paper.
Among those to get an early look was Gary Babbitt, a Rowlett truck driver who logged more than 5.4 million miles over his career before retiring last year.
He admitted he was skeptical when his company first pushed the change, explaining that “we’re just creatures of habit.” But he said that the “more I used it, the better I liked it.” And he found that the new setup saved him significant time and hassle.
“This is not really a bad deal,” said Babbitt, who was named National Truck Driver of the Year in 2013 by the American Trucking Association. “The driver, the highways, everything will be safer because of these ELDs.”
That kind of feedback caused some key trucking groups to back the new electronic device mandate, which has been years in the making.
Chris Spear, president of the American Trucking Association, said in a news release that truck drivers will see a big benefit from the new rules, “whether in reduced crashes, less time spent on paperwork or in fewer errors in their logbooks.”
Others are not so convinced.
Todd Spencer is the executive vice president at the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association. He said the rule was “not ready for the prime time,” causing him and other critics to push unsuccessfully for a delay in the rule’s effective date.
“Mass confusion surrounds every aspect of the rule,” he said.
Some of those concerns center on which kind of enterprises get exemptions and which ones don’t. Others involve the lack of privacy that could come from being tracked both on and off the clock. And still others deal with the scheduling quirks that are inherent to the trucking trade.
“There is just no logic there,” said Danny Schnautz, vice president at Pasadena-based Clark Freight Lines.
He pointed out that the paper system has logged time in 15-minute increments, building in a bit of flexibility. The electronic system is to-the-minute. So he offered a scenario where a driver could be minutes away from a destination, but forced to park for 10 hours to meet the rules.
And that sort of situation could end up reducing safety, rather than improving it, he and others said.
“This is what small businesses are afraid of,” said Babin, the congressman who said Schnautz flagged the issue for him.
What comes next remains unclear.
John Esparza, president of the Texas Trucking Association, said Babin’s “concerns are appreciated, but they are misdirected.” He argued that the complaints about the electronic devices are really about the rigidity of the existing “hours-of-services” rules.
He said the trucking industry has long pushed for more recognition that “every driver is different.” And said the solution was adding more flexibility “so a driver can make those adjustments according to his or her own judgment in driving safely” — not avoiding electronic logging devices.
“I feel for the driver,” Esparza said. “It’s an absolute legitimate argument. Unfortunately, it doesn’t have anything to do with ELDs.”
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