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Book by Cornell professor takes skeptical look at ELDs, surveillance

Karen Levy did hundreds of interviews on how surveillance impacts truck drivers’ jobs

Karen Levy of Cornell University and author of a new book on ELDs and surveillance. (Contributed photos)

A new book questions whether the federal ELD mandate, fully in effect since late 2019, is accomplishing its safety goals.

Karen Levy is an associate professor in the Department of Information Science at Cornell University and author of the recently published “Data Driven: Truckers, Technology, and the New Workplace Surveillance.” In an interview with FreightWaves, she said surveillance of workers is a key area of her research, and it ultimately brought her focus to trucking. 

“I don’t think of it as objections to the mandate per se,” Levy said for those trying to find a conclusion about ELDs in her work. “Where I come down is that I think we should look to see what problems the ELD mandate is solving and what it isn’t.”

The work that Levy put into the book stretched over almost three years, 11 states and discussions with “hundreds” of truckers. She went to such events as the MidAmerica Truck Show (MATS) in Louisville, Kentucky, “and I would talk to anybody who would talk to me.”

Fortunately, most of her field work was completed before the pandemic hit. 

“I think my key recommendation is that policymakers should think about making sure the solution for the problem is the right strategy for that problem,” Levy told FreightWaves. “If folks are too tired behind the wheel, then address that, rather than more policing.”


Levy said the ELD mandate was “rolled out as an answer to hours-of-service regulations and as a safety measure,” on the assumption it would reduce instances of excessive driving leading to fatigue and accidents.

But she said that “the data we have so far doesn’t seem to suggest it’s done too much to help with safety.” Various data showing incidents increasing post-pandemic suggest that “it’s not clear that the ELD mandate is succeeding on its own terms.”

(For example, full-year truck death data for 2021 was the highest in several years.)

“If the problem in trucking is that accidents are caused by fatigue, then we should focus on the root causes,” Levy said, describing technology and ELDs as possibly only a “Band-Aid” on those underlying problems.

In the book, Levy discusses the relationship between ELDs and “the other types of surveillance that are often built into the broader fleet management systems.” Cameras and technology governing maximum speed all fall into this category, she said. The ELD in that network “becomes this kind of backbone of support of their performance management and tracking systems.”

Given that those other types of such equipment are not mandated by the government, Levy said that for all the attention the ELD rule has gotten, “maybe the government mandate was fairly limited in scope.”

And that’s something that somebody thinking of buying the book needs to know going in: It’s not just about ELDs. But the ELD mandate, Levy said, is “hard to separate from the broader workplace surveillance that truckers find themselves under.”

The mandate, however, is close enough to what truckers do day in and day out that it makes them “the canary in the coal mine,” Levy said. And even if the ELD mandate is not as sweeping in its intrusion as some of its opponents have made it out to be, that “broader workplace surveillance … has really changed what it means to be a trucker.”

Levy acknowledges that “it’s hard to find industries where there isn’t this encroaching surveillance.” But the growth of it in trucking means that rules and regulations are challenging veteran drivers’ “knowledge of local conditions, and what it means to be a trucker.”

That “encroaching surveillance” may actually have hit some other industries earlier than trucking, she said, because with the dispersed nature of truck drivers, surveillance would have been more difficult than in the setting of an office or factory floor. So “in some sense, trucks are catching up to where others were for a while,” Levy said. 

But now, the surveillance of trucking is “part of a broader dynamic, and that is why I hope the book is of interest not only to trucking but all who care about workplace surveillance,” she added.

Increased surveillance in trucking is “extra hard,” according to Levy, “because truckers live in their cabs for a long period of time.”

Additionally, many people behind the wheel “self-selected into this industry because they wanted autonomy and freedom.” Surveillance might be a particularly tough pill for them to swallow, Levy said. 

One area she noted that could help the issue of fatigue: focusing on detention time. The book also cites parking shortages as an intertwined root cause of fatigue that an ELD alone is not going to solve.

While Levy believes ELDs are not solving the problem of safety and exhaustion, she says “getting rid of them isn’t going to solve the problems either.” But “in some ways, they’re a distraction.”

“The point of the book is not to say, ‘Let’s repeal the mandate,’” Levy said. “Let’s do the things the mandate was supposed to do but isn’t accomplishing.”

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John Kingston

John has an almost 40-year career covering commodities, most of the time at S&P Global Platts. He created the Dated Brent benchmark, now the world’s most important crude oil marker. He was Director of Oil, Director of News, the editor in chief of Platts Oilgram News and the “talking head” for Platts on numerous media outlets, including CNBC, Fox Business and Canada’s BNN. He covered metals before joining Platts and then spent a year running Platts’ metals business as well. He was awarded the International Association of Energy Economics Award for Excellence in Written Journalism in 2015. In 2010, he won two Corporate Achievement Awards from McGraw-Hill, an extremely rare accomplishment, one for steering coverage of the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster and the other for the launch of a public affairs television show, Platts Energy Week.