Appeals judges have thrown out a rule requiring commercial trucks operated by companies with poor safety records to be fitted with electronic devices to record drivers' hours.
The regulation, issued by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration in 2010 and scheduled to take effect next June, is invalid because the rule says nothing about ensuring that the devices are not used to harass drivers, the US Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals said. The now-void regulation targeted only a small slice of the trucking industry – companies found to have especially low compliance with the rules on how long drivers can work.
But the court decision also may affect a proposed regulation, issued in February, which would require an electronic recorder in every long-haul commercial truck in the country. The recent ruling is a victory for the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, an organization of some 150,000 truckers who own their own rigs.
The association argued that the regulation opened the door to potential harassment of drivers, and the court said the federal agency was legally obligated to address that issue but hadn't.
"Companies can and do use technology to harass drivers by interrupting rest periods," says Todd Spencer, executive vice president of the drivers' association.
The American Trucking Associations, the industry's largest trade association, had supported the rule. The electronic devices replace paper logbooks, which safety advocates, the motor carrier administration and drivers themselves say are widely falsified.
That long-standing problem prompted the agency to issue its sweeping call in February for electronic recorders across the industry. That still stands as a proposal, not a final rule like the one just struck down.
The motor carrier administration now may withdraw the proposal until it can address issues raised by the appeals court, Tim Wiseman, an Indianapolis lawyer specializing in transportation regulations issues, said Monday via email. Wiseman is a partner with Scopelitis, Garvin, Light, Hanson & Feary.
But the court decision probably will do no more than delay an industry wide requirement to replace logbooks with electronic recorders, other trucking professionals said. "Public opinion is we need this tool to manage truck drivers," says Mike England, senior consultant with DOT Compliance Help Inc., an Elgin, Ill., consulting firm on motor-carrier regulations.
"The handwriting's on the wall," says England. "This is not going to stop anything."
Some companies, including Wisconsin's Schneider National Inc. and Marten Transport Ltd., have voluntarily installed recorders throughout their fleets.