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Truckers and mandated recorders

MCT FORUM – By James L. Gattuso, The Heritage Foundation –

America’s truckers are known for their independence, often driving alone in their rigs from one end of the country to the other. Now Congress wants to give them company in the form of an electronic “big brother.”

Under a provision buried in the 600-page transportation bill recently passed by the Senate, truckers large and small would have to buy and maintain “electronic on-board recorders” (EOBRs) that would document their travel time and distance. This requirement would impose billions in new costs on truckers. Worse, this burden on the smallest of America’s small businesses is unnecessary. It provides few, if any, safety benefits. When congressional conferees meet to craft a final transportation bill, they should leave this proposed federal mandate on the roadside.

EOBRs are devices that record how long a truck is in motion and the distance traveled. Typically costing about $1,500 each, they can — when combined with GPS capability — also record the location of the vehicle.

In early 2011, the federal Department of Transportation proposed expanding the rule to cover all trucks subject to hours-of-service requirements.

The proposal doesn’t worry the big trucking firms much, many of which already have such devices installed in their trucks for fleet-management purposes. But it would throw sand in the gears of their smaller competitors — including hundreds of thousands of owner-operators — which are less able to absorb additional costs.

And these costs would be high, totaling more than $2 billion each year, according to an analysis by the Department of Transportation, making it one of the most expensive regulations in the regulatory pipeline.

This new burden would significantly add to the already eye-popping $46 billion in annual regulatory costs imposed since the start of the Obama administration. Overall, according to DOT, the proposed mandate would affect 500,000 firms and close to 4 million vehicles. In addition to the dollar costs of the regulation, there is also a significant potential cost in terms of privacy.

The Senate proposal requires EOBRs to have real-time tracking capability, meaning it will record where and when the truck has traveled. Mandatory recording of such information presents opportunity for abuse.

The potential benefits, by contrast, are unclear at best. Close to 70 percent of the benefits identified in the regulatory impact analysis prepared by FMCSA are paperwork savings; truckers would have to spend less time manually filling out the hours of service logs required by federal government. The actual safety benefits, according to FMCSA’s estimates, are only about one-third of the costs.

And even these estimates should be viewed with some skepticism. The rule would have little direct impact on safety. EOBRs do not monitor the working condition of the trucks, nor, under the proposed rules, would they necessarily be capable of monitoring speed.

The safety rationale for EOBRs is largely based on improved compliance with the hours of service rules. But even here, the benefits are uncertain. The devices track only the amount of time the truck is actually moving. But for much of a driver’s “on duty” time, the vehicle is stationary, waiting for a trailer to be loaded or idling at a truck stop. This time still has to be reported manually by the trucker, leaving significant room for error or misreporting.

Similarly, EOBRs do not ensure that drivers have had the required hours of off-duty time — all they can verify is how long that particular vehicle was not moving, not how long the individual driver was resting.

The relationship between compliance with hours of service standards and safety is also questionable. Certainly, driver fatigue is a hazard, and drivers need sufficient rest in order to drive safely. But fatigue-related accidents are only a small part of trucking accidents. According to the National Highway Safety Administration, driver fatigue was a factor in only 1.4 percent of fatal truck accidents in 2009.

DOT, of course, has yet to complete its fact-gathering on the proposed new rule, so all the facts are not yet known. But this argues against congressional intervention, not in favor of it. EOBRs can and should be an option for truckers and trucking firms that wish to use them. But the cost of mandating their use — both in dollars and in lost privacy — outweighs the uncertain benefits of such action. Congress should dump this regulatory load, and move on.

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