ON-SITE: An 'open forum' on the ELD mandate

By John Bendel, Land Line editor-at-large | 8/17/2017

The FMCSA brought its “road show” to eastern Pennsylvania this week with a decidedly mixed message.

First, the agency’s speakers said, this was the new Trump administration. FMCSA was now all about trimming regulations, not making new ones. The FMCSA had done a quick, regulatory 180.

Second, regardless of that first point, under no circumstances were they going to repeal, modify, or delay one regulation in particular, the big one with the greatest cost and most far-reaching impact – the ELD mandate. They weren’t even going to think about it. That was stressed, emphasized and underlined by FMCSA Chief Counsel Randi Hutchinson. The ELD mandate was the most done deal of all time.

This, the second FMCSA road show, took place at a hotel in the Philadelphia exurb of Collegeville. The first had been in Minneapolis. They billed the event in a media advisory as, among other things, an “open forum and listening session to gather feedback from state government, law enforcement and industry stakeholders.”

It was nothing of the sort. The Collegeville road show was really for those who had received advance notice and actually had time to plan their attendance. They appeared to be state and local law enforcement people there to learn about the mandate and how best to deal with it.

The rest of us, the press and many industry people, didn’t learn of the event until that media advisory two business days beforehand. Yes, the meeting had been noted on an FMCSA events webpage, but unless you checked that page regularly, you wouldn’t know. It’s not on my daily must-read list. Is it on yours?

So it was a scramble to get there, and it appeared many who would otherwise have attended did not. The event planners must have counted on that given the small meeting hall they booked at the local Marriott. Most of the attendees sat around banquet tables, which took up lots of space. There was not a single empty seat in the room, even among the chairs lined up along the back and side walls.

Clearly the FMCSA wanted this event to remain relatively small. What they did not want were critical comments and uncomfortable questions. They got them anyway. They certainly heard from OOIDA Board of Directors member Chuck Paar, who let everyone in the room know the ELD mandate was a bad idea that would make a difficult situation worse.

In response, Hutchinson and FMCSA Deputy Administrator Daphne Jefferson tried to defend the mandate on its alleged merits but ultimately claimed they had no choice in the matter. Congress had mandated ELDs in a 2012 transportation bill, and that was that – a fact repeated a number of times during the event.

I asked how the agency would deal with carriers using ELDs to turn maximum hours of service into minimums by prodding drivers to keep working as long as they had time on their logs – an obvious threat to safety. Associate Administrator for Enforcement William Quade rose to answer that one. The gist of his response was that those guys were lowlifes the FMCSA would eventually catch up with. In other words, they weren’t dealing with it.

Quade also noted that that kind of harassment has been going on for years. He’s right about that, but ELDs vastly facilitate the practice. Then Jefferson pointed to the agency’s tough new stance that forbids coercing a driver to break HOS rules. Of course that has nothing to do with the equally dangerous yet legal issue I had asked about.

This was not a listening session. It was an arguing session, though why FMCSA felt compelled to dispute every statement escapes me. In a listening session, it seems to me, the listeners should be, well, listening and taking notes. Rather than telling the speaker why he or she is wrong, they should simply say thank you and move on to the next comment. But what’s the fun in that?

I have no animus toward Randi Hutchinson, Daphne Jefferson or William Quade. They were just doing their job. But I would like to know whose idea it was refer to this curious road show event as a listening session.

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