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Highway Realities: Unmet Expectations of ELDs in Trucking

ELD in trucking

Six years after hyping electronic logging devices (ELDs) as a safety game-changer in trucking, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) is confronting a reality check. Despite touting stats like "1,844 crashes avoided annually, 562 fewer injuries per year, and 26 lives saved each year" back in 2017, the actual impact of ELDs has disappointingly fallen short. Truck drivers and operators are now boldly declaring that ELDs have failed to deliver the promised safety boost, casting doubt on their effectiveness.

In December 2017, FMCSA mandated ELDs for commercial vehicles to boost road safety. While larger companies had already embraced ELDs at that time, smaller ones used less advanced devices like automatic onboard recording devices (AOBRDs) or stuck with paper logbooks, seen as prone to falsification.

ELDs are built to ensure truckers stay within the 11-hour daily driving limit, preventing fatigue and maintaining road safety. Picture a driver, just 30 minutes from home, hitting that 11-hour mark—they've got to swiftly pull over to dodge automatic violations of the hours-of-service rule. Violations could hit operators with fines, posing a genuine threat to their trucking licenses as well as HOS violations to the carrier increasing their CSA score, which could lead to negative consequences.

Early Pushback Against ELDs

As the government pushed ELDs for safety and standardization, drivers and operators vigorously resisted, offering a different perspective. Despite boasting about $1 billion in annual savings, mainly from cutting paperwork, nationwide protests by drivers and operators stole the spotlight on live TV and other media platforms. They argued the ELD mandate was not the right way to make the highways safer, and in some cases actually increased the likelihood of an accident.

Unnecessary pressure jeopardizes safety

Imposing unnecessary pressure on drivers seriously jeopardizes safety. Many drivers and owner-operators assert that the government's mandate oversteps bounds and stresses drivers unduly. It's not just about potential violations and fines for non-compliance; it's about the pressure leading to poor decisions on the road, posing a serious threat to safety.

Darrel Wright, owner-operator, nails this point perfectly. “If I’m driving 74 miles per hour and I see a car easing up on me, I will usually let off and let the car go on, but after the ELDs go into effect I can’t give that courtesy anymore because every time I let off the accelerator I lose money.”

Drivers lose sense of autonomy

The sense of freedom that drivers cherish out on the open highway is under threat. Many truckers hauling loads across the country entered the trucking industry because of the “romantic nature of the distant roads” and the consequent “kind of freedom, sense of rest” when driving trucks.  So, it's no surprise that drivers are resisting the mandate for ELDs, which place the ever-despised leash of the law on the freedom they cherish.

Pat Valenti, an owner-operator from Buffalo, N.Y., bluntly states, "Having a GPS on my truck 24/7 feels like an invasion of my rights. I get the need to track hours, but where I am should be my business, not everyone else's."

This concern about privacy isn't new. In 2012, a similar ELD mandate got rejected because carriers argued that it could be used to harass or disrupt drivers during their off-duty hours.

Possibility of data breach and cyberattacks

Then there's the worry about data breaches and cyberattacks. ELDs involve a lot of data transfers and storage, and like any technology, they're not immune to cyber threats.

Matt Shourd, an owner-operator and third-generation trucker, emphasizes, "My main issue is that it's a self-certified, unregulated device made in a foreign country. Who's going to have access to my data? The ECUs in my truck are for diagnostics, not for sending and receiving data to another computer."

For those hauling unique products like ammunition, the concern is even greater. Ingrid Brown of Mountain City asserts, "Introducing a third-party e-log provider into a mandated location-tracking situation on such sensitive deliveries doesn't sit well with my sense of comfort."

Neglecting underlying issues

How does the government expect truck drivers to adhere to an 11-hour work limit when most drivers are compensated per mile, not per hour? With a pay system based on mileage, drivers instinctively pursue more miles, putting their safety at risk under the strict 11-hour rule. The mandate vividly exposes the government's detachment from the pressing issues confronting drivers.

Tom Weakley, Operations Director of OOIDA Foundation, perfectly sums up longstanding pay structure concern among truck drivers— “Compensation that pays by the mile is a killer,”

Noble Aspiration, Empty Miles: Missing ELD Outcomes

Government records expose a downhill trend in safety years after the ELD mandate, sparking serious questions about the touted positive impact of ELDs. For a quick comparison, note that fatality rates among truckers have surged, escalating from 23.6 per 100,000 workers in 2013 to 28.8 in 2021, as the Bureau of Labor Statistics data indicates. Not only that, but injuries and deaths from crashes involving large trucks have also experienced an uptick, according to data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). 

See the graph below for a vivid summary of safety figures straight from government data- FMCSA’s Motor Carrier Management and Information System (MCMIS). Pre-mandate covers 2014-2017 data, while post-mandate covers 2018-2021 data.

Truck incidents data

ELD is a safety issue more than a safety device

As expected, Professor Karen Levy's Cornell University research shows ELDs jeopardize safety, leading drivers to speed to comply with the 11-hour rule. Supporting this,  Eli Broad College of Business reveals that smaller trucking companies, previously ELD non-users, saw a rise in citations for risky driving behaviors like speeding, disregarding signals, tailgating, and sudden lane-switching.

In an intriguing take, Smart Trucking asserts that ELDs present dangers by pushing operators to begin a shift when ELDs signal it's already "legally" feasible to work according to Hours of Service (HOS). But just because drivers have hours left doesn't mean they should hit the road—ELDs might be nudging still drowsy drivers.

The opposition to this mandate is gaining momentum, fueled by undeniable facts. In November 2022, Todd Spencer, CEO of the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, wrote an open letter to FMSCA, stating, "There wasn't enough research to prove this mandate makes our highways safer, and you still don't have any data showing it's actually working." 

Operators are rightly angered because ELDs also hamper timely service delivery, causing persistent delays. ELDs' inflexibility clashes in an industry where predictability is rarer than a two-dollar bill, vividly demonstrated in the accompanying video below.

Navigating the ELD Puzzle

The FMCSA seems to be downplaying the significance of the recent surge in crashes attributed to the ELD mandate. Despite this, the agency remains undeterred and continues to overlook pertinent data. Notably, in 2022, the FMCSA solicited public comments on ELDs. However, the discussion primarily focused on specifications and applicability, sidestepping the crucial topics of ELD impact and flexibility.

FMCSA Administrator Robin Hutcheson boldly asserts that the agency is "interested in examining the underlying causes of why drivers become unsafe, and that goes beyond any sort of logging device." Hutcheson emphasizes a broader investigation into the work structures within which drivers operate.

Offering a perspective on this matter, Collin Mooney, Executive Director of the Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance, adds, "The only thing that we can point to and see is that it really boils down to driver behavior." The emphasis remains on scrutinizing driver conduct as a potential contributing factor to the observed challenges.

In brief, the promised safety improvements from electronic logging devices (ELDs) in trucking have not materialized. Six years later, concerns persist, including driver pressure and data security issues. Contrary to claims, government records show increased accidents among truckers. Addressing the root causes of unsafe driving behavior is crucial for genuine road safety progress in the industry.


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