Thursday, June 19, 2014

When regulators get it wrong

It seemed like a good idea. Talented technology developers convinced safety advocates that their product in trucks would reduce accidents. Both groups helped convince regulators to make the devices mandatory. But the result was not the great boon to safety that regulators expected.

Sounds like ELDs, doesn’t it? Actually it was more than 40 years ago, and the devices were anti-lock brakes. The aerospace companies that created and manufactured them for multi-million-dollar aircraft were certain that anti-lock brakes on big trucks would save lives – and make them a lot of money.

In 1975, a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration regulation went into effect and the ABS trucks hit the road in numbers. It was clear to many drivers that ABS wasn’t quite ready for the highways. Sometimes trucks pulled to one side, then suddenly veered to the other, even changing lanes. Some drivers reported the wheel being wrenched from their grasp altogether. Ingenious technology that was supposed to enhance safety was, at least in some cases, actually hazardous.

Of course, ABS is a great technology. But all at once in 1975, it was too much too soon. A sophisticated aerospace product wasn’t ready for U.S. highways and maintenance shops, and the rule was eventually upended by a federal court. So it turned out those well-intentioned engineers, safety advocates, and regulators had actually pushed a promising technology straight off a cliff. Most trucks would be without ABS for another 20 years.

Is there a lesson here where ELDs are concerned? How about the ill-conceived restart provision of the latest HOS?

In both cases, regulators – this time the FMCSA – have overreached. To enforce elegantly crafted, arithmetically gratifying solutions, they have seriously circumscribed a driver’s real-world options. There is no elegance in the cockeyed realities drivers deal with hour-by-hour, day-by-day. And flesh-and-blood bodies simply do not conform to anything so orderly as a statistical norm.

Will regulators eventually relent? Will an appeals court somewhere come to the rescue? We can only hope.