FMCSA taps Virginia Tech to study electronic on-board recorders

By David Tanner, Land Line associate editor | 8/10/2012

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration has awarded a grant to the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute to study whether electronic on-board recorders, or EOBRs, can reduce the risk of fatigue-related crashes.

The study will use existing data from the U.S. Department of Transportation to compare safety records and crash rates among EOBR-equipped trucks and non-equipped trucks.

“For this research project, we will look at crash and vehicle data to determine whether trucks with electronic onboard recorders have a significantly lower crash rate than those without,” Jeff Hickman, occupational health and safety expert for Virginia Tech, in a statement from the institute.

“Our database will also allow us to look at preventable crashes and crashes that have been designated as fatigue related.”

Hickman says the study aims to “evaluate the potential safety benefits of electronic on-board recorders.”

In addition to crash comparisons, Hickman will also study HOS compliance, estimate how many operators and fleets are using EOBRs, how much the devices cost to install and operate, and whether EOBRs provide benefits as some claim.

Hickman says he will report the study findings in late 2013.

According to a recent posting by the FMCSA, the agency intends to publish a final rule on EOBRs in March 2013 – well before the results of the Hickman study would be made public.

The recently passed highway bill, known as MAP-21, orders the FMCSA to carry out an EOBR mandate within the next couple of years.

The agency’s schedule is ambitious, considering that regulators have still not addressed the issue of EOBRs being used as a tool to harass drivers.

In comments to the FMCSA, many professional drivers have said they are routinely contacted by their carriers to keep driving regardless of whether they are tired or in need of a break. As long as drivers had available time on the clock, they were pressured to keep the wheels turning.

The Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association took the issue of driver harassment to court last year. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit sided with OOIDA in the lawsuit, vacated the FMCSA’s initial rulemaking on EOBRs for the industry’s so-called bad actors, and sent the agency back to the drawing board to sort out the harassment issue.

In addition to raising the harassment issue, OOIDA contends that EOBRs are no more effective than paper logs when it comes to safety and compliance, and that the devices will add unnecessary cost to trucking operations. Privacy rights are also a concern.

The MAP-21 highway law sets a high mark for what the ideal EOBR should be able to do, what it should not do, and how the data would be collected and interpreted by law enforcement relating hours of service. The law calls for EOBRs to be able to recognize the driver behind the wheel, which would require a code, thumbprint or some other identification technology.

Members of the U.S. House are not satisfied that EOBRs are a panacea for hours-of-service enforcement. As Congress was voting to approve MAP-21 in July, a separate appropriations bill contained an amendment to kill the FMCSA’s funding for pursuing an EOBR mandate. The House passed the appropriations bill, but the Senate may not take up the measure until fall.

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