Terry Button is a fifth-generation farmer from upstate New York who also works as a long-distance trucker, hauling hay and produce up and down the East Coast.
He's proud of his truck and likes it just the way it is. Inside, the cab is homey and low-tech, with a bed behind the two seats and a CB radio. There's no cruise control and no GPS telling him where to go.
"Canada is that way, Boston is that way, California is that way, Florida is that way," Button jokes. "I can figure out how to get there. I don't need a little box on the dash, telling me, 'Turn left, turn right.' "
But if a new rule proposed by the Department of Transportation goes through, Button will be required to have a high-tech little box on his dashboard — one that's hooked up to his engine — to automatically record how many hours he drives.
"I can't think of anything good that would come from this. If I could, I would tell you honestly, and I can't," says Button. He cares a lot about safety but thinks the proposed new rule would be a mistake.
The device would be a new way to track how well truckers stick to the federal limits on driving hours that exist to keep dangerously tired truckers off the road. Such driving restrictions have been around since the 1930s, and truck drivers document all of their working hours in daily log books. Currently, they are supposed to work for no more than a 14-hour stretch, and only 11 of those hours can be driving hours.
But safety advocates have long argued that these handwritten logs are so easy to fake that they're a joke, noting that they're sometimes referred to in CB slang as "comic books," and that drivers can just lie on the logs and work far more hours.
"Tired truckers are a major, major safety problem," says Jackie Gillan of the Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety in Washington, D.C. Her group has been urging the government to require electronic onboard recorders for more than 15 years. "Paper log books are easily manipulated. They are easily falsified."
Concerns Over Monitors
Historically, large trucks have been involved in about 10 percent of highway fatalities. And although it's hard to measure exactly how many crashes are caused by overtiredness, one government study found that in 13 percent of large truck crashes, fatigue was a factor.
"We have the technology to solve a problem. Why wouldn't we do it? This rule is way overdue and its time has come, and we have the technology to really address a serious safety problem," Gillan says. "There is no question that that is going to advance enforcement, and there is no question that it will also result in safer trucking."
But some people do question that. Todd Spencer is executive vice president of the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, which has around 150,000 members — many of them truckers who own just one truck, like Terry Button. Spencer says this technology cannot detect a trucker who is tired, or catch a cheater who is working too many hours.
"The only thing that it will automatically record is when a truck is moving," Spencer says.
When the truck isn't moving, the device will have no idea whether the trucker is truly off duty and asleep, or awake and doing work like loading or unloading. "It will depend on a driver actually inputting that data," Spencer says. "And that's no different than what you would do with a paper log."
To him, the main difference is cost. He says independent truckers generally do their job for $40,000 or less a year — they can buy a paper log book at truck stops for as little as $1.49. But putting in an electronic monitor can cost from $1,500 to $2,000.
Why so much? The gizmos on the market do a lot of things beyond recording a driver's hours — things like tracking a truck's location and letting a dispatcher communicate with a driver. These multipurpose units were designed to help trucking companies manage big fleets, to help them be more efficient so they can make money.
For that reason, they're becoming increasingly popular — and resistance to the idea of a government mandate is crumbling.
Driven By Safety
This month, an industry group called the American Trucking Associations, which represents thousands of trucking companies, dropped its longstanding opposition to mandatory electronic logging and came out in favor of the idea.
And some big companies are now actively promoting electronic logging, with five major companies coming together to form a group called the Alliance for Driver Safety and Security. It's lobbying Congress to pass a law requiring electronic logging, to make sure the proposed DOT rule goes through.
"These companies wanted some action, and wanted it now, and wanted to push for legislation," says Bill Vickery, spokesman for the alliance. "The best way to get action in Washington is to push for legislation."
"We don't want to be defined by the worst in our industry," says Don Osterberg, senior vice president of safety for Schneider National, one of the companies in that alliance. "We just think we need to elevate the expectations and the performance of all motor carriers."
But Spencer, from the independent owner-operator drivers' group, dismisses that argument. "When they talk about leveling the playing field, what they are really saying is we need to get behind efforts that will increase costs of our competitors," Spencer says. "We don't find that to be an especially noble effort."
The costs will hit independent truckers like Button the hardest. And Button says they have objections beyond just the increased cost, saying it's like having Big Brother come into their cabs to monitor their behavior.
"When I'm away from home, this is my home," Button says. "Does somebody come in your front door and decide, 'I want to plug into your computer and see where you've been today'?"
Button says he personally can't see how it will improve safety — as far as he's concerned, that's controlled by the person behind the wheel. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.