Friday, August 22, 2014

Technology is turning HOS on its head

In the evolving world of electronic logging devices and real-time communication, regulations intended to put a lid on driver hours now provide a floor. The maximum under federal regulation has become the minimum through the laws of business.

There was a time, not all that long ago, when hours-of-service compliance was primarily the concern of the truckload driver. Sure, dispatch had to know a driver’s log status for planning. Did the driver have enough hours to handle a particular load? But a dispatcher didn’t necessarily know what a driver’s log looked like – exactly how many hours were left in a day, for example – unless the driver told him.

ELDs and mobile communications changed that. Now dispatch can know a driver’s available time down to the minute. They are also aware if a driver pulls over for a time, perhaps to nap, and they can be in constant communication with that driver – with all that implies in terms of potential harassment.

Now hold that thought.

Over the past 20 years carriers have been sharing more and more information with customers, who can now watch the progress of a truck on an iPhone. The more information carriers provided – ever more frequent updates, for example – the more shippers asked for. Why not? Whether the information is truly meaningful to the customer or not, it costs nothing to request. But customer requests quickly became market demands.

In logistics they call it visibility – always knowing where the freight is. We’re told it results in efficiencies for transportation customers, and maybe it does. But there is no doubt at all what it means for carriers and brokers: pressures to meet always increasing, ever more precise customer expectations.

Those pressures, like light rays magnified, converge on the driver. For one thing, sophisticated load planning software can maximize utilization of drivers’ available hours. And when a carrier knows the details of an individual driver’s log, they can apply subtle – or not-so-subtle – pressure within those legal hours. Carriers can push drivers up to the legal limit, filling their ELDs with logged hours and minimizing their options.

Please keep in mind that among those options is the choice to shut down and rest, to pull over and nap, to do what a driver knows is the right thing to do when fatigue flows in like a mist. No device yet invented can detect driver fatigue better than the driver. No algorithm can better decide when it’s time to call it a day. No set of regulations can better protect the public than a driver’s ability to decide – without pressure – when to run and when to get off the road.

Compelling a driver to stay on the road because there’s time left on an ELD is a very serious form of driver harassment. It endangers the public no less than forcing a driver to break the HOS rules. Yet in addressing driver harassment in the context of ELDs, the FMCSA simply looked the other way. They essentially restated current regulations in a tougher tone of voice, forbidding dispatch to force a driver to break HOS rules. That fails totally to even acknowledge the new reality created by ELDs.

Regulators understand that some drivers will drive as many hours as they legally can. That’s the reason for limits in the first place. But they also understand that HOS is intended to define how long a driver is allowed to work. It was never meant to define how long a driver is required to work. But that’s what’s happening.

For the moment, these circumstances do not apply universally, only to technologically advanced fleets. But due to market demands more fleets are acquiring technology, and if an ELD mandate goes into effect and automated logs are in every truck, this problem will surely metastasize.