by Bill Hudgins, Land Line exclusive
If you did much more than get out of bed today, you probably gave away more information about yourself than you might have wished. And it would not take the “CSI” team to find clues to what you did, where you went, what you watched on TV, even who you talked to.
Lest this inspire a wave of paranoia, it’s important to remember that for most of us, most of the time, the trail of crumbs we leave behind us each day blows away harmlessly. But it’s also important to remember personal information in the wrong hands can devastate our lives. So knowing where our privacy is vulnerable — or where we’re just being careless — can help shore up our defenses.
So how do we give out all this information? And who’s interested in it? And, aside from a desire to foil would-be snoops, should we care?
Today’s trucks: rolling databases
Every morning when Tom T. Hauler fires up his late-model Class 8 tractor, a host of electronic busybodies starts taking notes.
When non-truckers tell Tom it must be nice not having anyone watching you while you work, he just snorts. He knows that, contrary to popular stereotype, professional drivers are among the most closely watched workers in America. The fact that their workplace may stretch for thousands of miles lends an aura of anonymity.
Today’s trucks are rolling databases, thanks to the growing number of electronic control modules (ECMs) and similar technological widgets on board. ECMs on engines, transmissions and braking systems record operating data and keep track of vital statistics such as idling time, fuel efficiency and maintenance intervals.
Even tires have brains. In October 2002, Michelin North America introduced its eTire System, which includes sensors that can be attached to any brand of truck tire. The system also includes hand-held or drive-by readers. Proprietary software records tire pressure, wheel position and maintenance information. Just as vehicle inspectors can now check brake condition with a heat-sensing scanner, it’s not unlikely they could someday check tire pressures with a system like this.
Some engine ECMs can even record whether your windshield wipers are on.
These tiny computers communicate with each other. They share, compare and record data as well as report it to drivers like Tom via dashboard displays. So when he’s not on the CB complaining about the price of fuel or arguing with Nighttrain about NASCAR’s restrictor plate rules, Tom can check his fuel efficiency or check when he’s due for another oil change.
ECMs are great at keeping track of important numbers such as maintenance, fuel efficiency and idling time. They also record specific kinds of events, such as hard braking to make a sudden stop. But for all they can do, they are far from the powerful onboard data recorders, or black boxes, that have been high on the wish list of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Today’s ECMs don’t record second-by-second everything that’s happening inside (and outside) the truck, and they don’t record anything that’s said in the cab, such as the voice recorder on an airplane would. This leads to problems with data reliability, especially when trying to reconstruct an accident, according to industry sources.
For instance, an ECM may say the driver jammed on the brakes, but it doesn’t record road or weather conditions that may have contributed to an accident. And they certainly don’t record whether the driver of a car cut in front of the truck and then hit the brakes.
The desire for more data fueled NHTSA’s push for mandatory black boxes in commercial vehicles in the late 1990s. Stiff opposition from OOIDA, drivers and other segments of the industry persuaded the government to back off. Last spring, the National Transportation Safety Board said it had essentially given up trying to mandate the devices.
Ah, the ‘open’ road
While engineers are working out the wrinkles in these electronics, there are plenty of other ways regulators, fleet managers and the public keep an eye on trucking.
A few brief glances take in your license plate, MC number, IFTA registration, and tractor and trailer number, not to mention the fleet name, your own company name and that snappy CB handle painted on the door. That’s more than enough information to ruin your day if someone calls to complain about your driving.
Or point a Web browser at http://www.safersys.org, and enter an MC or possibly an MX number for Mexican carriers or USDOT number. You’ll have access to a profile of the carrier, including licensing and insurance information, out-of-service reports, name, address and phone number.
Trucks don’t move without drivers, so gathering information about drivers is big business. If you drive a truck, DAC Services Inc. almost certainly has a file on you among the 4 million driver records it archives. DAC’s 29,995 clients include 95 of the top 100 motor carriers. Its reports include employment histories, driving records, criminal histories, credit records, and alcohol and drug tests.
Who can access your DAC records? DAC clients who have signed the appropriate agreements with DAC may access the “employment history file” or EHF. DAC says it verifies the authenticity of each company prior to establishing membership. Among other things, this agreement requires your permission be obtained — in the form of a “driver release” — prior to the release of your record. However, a release is not required in order to store your employment history in the EHF. DAC says its clients are held responsible for the accuracy of the information stored in the file.
According to DAC, you may review your file. DAC’s Consumer Consulting Department will work together with you and the employer for resolution of any dispute over the content of an employment history record. You can get a copy of your file by sending a written request to:
Consumer Consulting Department
PO Box 33181
Tulsa, OK 74153
Again, the advent of stronger counterterrorism measures could mean more government checking of DAC records — we just don’t know at this point. This is something OOIDA is adamantly opposed to.
Every mile you make …
While others are keeping track of truckers, truckers are required to keep track of themselves. Despite the revolution of electronics in trucking, most drivers still keep logbooks the way they did decades ago — with a pencil, paper and ruler.
Werner drivers are an exception. In June 1998, Werner became the first — and to date, the only — truckload carrier to be authorized by the Federal Highway Administration to use paperless logs. Working through the tractor’s Qualcomm unit, the Werner Paperless Log System makes many entries automatically for drivers from the information transmitted from the trucks. Werner says the system has improved efficiency in planning loads and helps prevent logbook falsification. Drivers opinions vary on the pros and cons and even the accuracy.
The fueling card you use at a truckstop automatically reports your purchases and related data like time and place. It may also tell you that your spending limit has been capped or cut off, and that you need to phone in. And it can be used to help audit your logbook.
With concerns growing about safety and big lawsuits, log auditing is going high-tech. For instance, J.J. Keller now uses customers’ electronic fuel card data as part of its Log Falsification Audit Service. Keller compares monthly fuel card use against drivers’ logs to find errors and discrepancies. Through its fuel purchase services, Comdata provides driver log auditing customized to its customers’ needs, including fuel falsification on purchases made with the Comdata card. Transplace now offers its DriverLogsOnline Web-based log auditing application to carriers as well as owner-operators.
Satellite tracking systems also can be used to audit logs, as well as reporting real-time position and operating information. Because of concerns about safety, customer service and cargo theft, it’s a hot area of development for manufacturers such as Qualcomm, Delphi, Aether Systems Inc. and Cadec.
If your truck is equipped with Qualcomm or some other kind of satellite tracking and communication gear, the company you lease to monitors your whereabouts, so dispatch knows and the receiver and shipper know. This kind of information also has been subpoenaed for legal proceedings.
Although high-tech electronics seem to put a supervisor’s eyes right behind your seat, it doesn’t pay to ignore low-tech giveaways. Caller ID, for instance. A dispatcher once told me how a driver had called in to say he was stuck in Iowa — but was calling from a number several states away.
Other electronic tattletales
Tom carries one transponder that automatically pays tolls for him on part of his dedicated route. It’s convenient, but he wonders whether he can be tracked through his toll tag systems?
Because statements normally include locations, dates and times of transactions, it wouldn’t be that hard. In checking for logbook violations, enforcement officers may use a variety of trucking company records to verify accuracy.
Tom’s rig also carries a couple of cigarette-pack-sized transponders that preclear him at a number of weigh stations. At least 37 states have implemented or plan to implement preclearance systems. You might expect electronic prepass systems to be tattletales, but they have strict privacy policies.
You’re probably familiar with PrePass, one preapproval system that enables participating fleets to bypass many weigh stations. PrePass emphatically says it does not pass along information that could be used by fleets or enforcement agencies to compute average speed or possible hours-of-service violations.
According to its online FAQ (frequently asked questions), information collected at one PrePass site cannot be passed on to another site. PrePass has no device to record a driver’s speed. The invoice that is sent to the carrier does not list the times drivers bypassed a weigh station, and once fees are paid, the information is not permanently retained.
All the info, all the time?
As an owner-operator, Tom has more control over who sees what than a company driver. However, he’s aware that a trucker’s day on the road isn’t as private as it used to be, and he doesn’t like it. If he wanted someone watching over his shoulder, second-guessing his performance and judgment, he wouldn’t have quit that factory job where at least he was home every night.
But September 11, 2001, has cast a pall of uncertainty over the privacy of data through the creation of the Department of Homeland Security and its “Total Information Awareness” project. “TIA” appears to give the government broad powers to examine all sorts of personal and business data to find patterns that could point to potential terrorist plots.
Whether TIA will survive legal challenges or is even technologically possible remains to be seen. But the concern that a load of hazardous materials could be turned into a weapon indicates trucking will get ever more scrutiny in the future.
Off the road, though, the privacy playing field is a lot more level for all of us. As concerned as we are about our privacy and all that makes up our identities, are we careful enough? Not by a long shot.
According to the Federal Trade Commission, for the third consecutive year, the most common fraud was identity theft. The number of 2002 victims nearly doubled to about 162,000 — 43 percent of all fraud complaints.
How careful do you need to be?
Next issue, Land Line will feature Part 2 of Bill Hudgins’ exclusive series, including more questions, more answers and tips on dodging privacy pirates.
Bill Hudgins, former editor-in-chief of Road King Magazine, has covered the trucking industry for more than nine years. He is now an editor for Hammock Publishing in Nashville, TN.