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Are ELDs making our roads safer?

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While it’s true that the deadliest accidents on America’s roadways happen more often with freight than otherwise, at the same time, they are more often the error of the car driver, at rates that have varied over the past several years between 80-85%.  

No doubt, crashes are terrible for everyone involved. As former American Trucking Association (ATA) President Bill Graves has said, “Every crash, and every fatality and injury suffered on our nation’s highways is a tragedy. Preventing them from happening requires a proper understanding of the causes of these crashes. It is also tragic that carriers and drivers across this country are saddled with guilt and blame for many crashes they could do nothing to prevent.”

But you can only get so far with regulation and safety. “I know this is a hard thing for the public and the government to swallow, but all the regulations in the world will not stop accidents or fatigue,” writes driver Kacey Erway on a FMCSA message board.

There is one aspect about ELDs and the rigid Hours of Service (HOS) rules that you just can’t get around: how long the driver has been awake—or already driven—before getting into the truck. That part of the equation just can’t be reasonably measured.

Remember the high profile case of Tracy Morgan’s entourage getting rear-ended by a Walmart truck a few years ago? That truck driver was within his legal driving hours, but he had commuted nearly eight hours just to get to work.

Around 1 a.m. on June 7, 2014, 35-year-old Kevin Roper – then halfway through the 13th hour of his 14-hour shift – slammed into Morgan’s limo from behind, killing comedian James McNair and seriously injuring Morgan and three others. Roper had been awake more than 28 hours, the National Transportation Safety Board reported.

He filed a civil suit against WalMart; they eventually reached a confidential settlement. The retailer, which initially faulted Morgan and his colleagues for not wearing seat belts, later “took full responsibility for the accident,” according to Morgan’s lawyer.

We are, however, at the threshold of obtaining fresh data on how ELDs are panning out across the industry. As FreightWaves recently reported, 3PL service provider, Zipline Logistics, specializing in retail and grocery transportation, recently conducted the first of several surveys to come on the ELD Mandate. The survey includes responses from more than 100 trucking companies of various sizes with the intention of keeping a pulse on the industry.

Among the struggles, companies are experiencing greater difficulty dispatching their trucks due to budgeting time for unforeseen challenges, and the inflexibility of the HOS rules. According to the report, companies with larger fleets (31 or more trucks and multiple terminal locations) prefer loads with longer hauls. Their infrastructure allows for the long hauler to driver until the 14-hour clock expires, then relays the last mile for local delivery to drivers with fresh hours. By contrast, carriers with 30 or fewer trucks usually have to do both linehaul and delivery.

The question that really fires everyone up is the issue of safety. Possibly because the jury is still out on exactly how much they do or don’t improve safety conditions. From the Zipline survey, there were in fact more respondents who said safety has improved under ELDs, but the ones who feel roads are less safe were more vocal. It’s a heated topic with much debate, passion, and opinion. “The true results are still largely unknown,” Bethany Cramer of Zipline tells FreightWaves.

Interestingly, 61% of respondents said safety has increased, while 39% said it has decreased. Naturally, the FMCSA argues that the ELD Mandate will save 26 lives and prevent 562 injuries resulting from crashes involving large motor vehicles.

Throughout the survey some drivers expressed their thoughts and feelings about having to rush to make up for overall loss of productivity. One respondent wrote, “The ELD mandate is supposed to be about safety, but livestock carriers, concert and entertainment transporters are exempt. If it’s about safety, why are certain groups allowed to be exempt but others not?” Another said, “Our company doesn’t do over the road anymore because it’s more stressful for the drivers to be on duty 14 straight hours without the flexibility of going on/off duty when tired.”  

When your operating by strict hours of service you really want to see everyone being compliant. Andrew Ladebauche, CEO and co-founder or Reliance Parnters, tells FreightWaves, “Larger carriers are excited to see the compliance for the HOS. They’ve figured out their lanes and routes. They’re ahead of schedule. Once the drivers get comfortable with the systems they like it even much more than the paper logs. The thing that’s most difficult is the last minute fleet owners getting things up and going.”

Will drivers speed to meet their obligations? So far there isn’t any evidence to back this up, and one trend that suggests otherwise comes down to basic planning. Everyone’s more aware of the length of their routes.

Also, Ladebauche says that as more and more systems and telematics come out there has been some proof that carriers who can monitor the drivers behavior—hard braking and other data points—has been able to reduce costs. They’re able to track things on a daily basis. If you’re a good driver, you want it on record. Same with if you’re a carrier that hires good drivers. You want documentation. It will also help the industry enormously with ridiculous lawsuits. All of which will add up to reduced rates—and the ability to hold shippers and receivers accountable.

There are still going to be plenty of learning curves. “In the short term, there will be a disruption,” says Ladebauche. “In the mid-length term—the next 60-90 days—we’ll probably see a clearer picture impact industry-wide.”

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