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The trucking industry is gearing up for a major overhaul come the end of the year, when drivers will cease logging their hours on the road with pencil and paper and usher in a new era of electronic recording aimed at improved safety for drivers.

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s mandate on electronic logging devices (ELDs) goes into effect Dec. 18. The measure is being enforced to improve safety, but while larger trucking operations support the effort, there’s the assertion that the mandate could drive smaller operators out of business.

The FMCSA declined to speak with the Journal but provided a statement from Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx: “Since 1938, complex, on-duty/off-duty logs for truck and bus drivers were made with pencil and paper, virtually impossible to verify. This automated technology not only brings logging records into the modern age, it also allows roadside safety inspectors to unmask violations of federal law that put lives at risk.”

The safety administration estimates that ELDs will prevent 1,844 crashes, 562 injuries and save 26 lives annually by keeping exhausted drivers off the road. Switching to electronic logs also is expected to eliminate more than $1.6 billion in paperwork costs for motor carriers and law-enforcement agencies reviewing drivers’ logs.

The mandate will impact more than 3.5 million commercial drivers and equip more than 500,000 U.S. trucking firms with ELD, which looks to be about a $1 billion business, according to FMCSA estimates.

The logs are used by truckers who go cross-country or go beyond 100 mile radius of their home and are checked by the California Highway Patrol at weigh stations.

“The idea behind the logbook is to keep the driver from overdriving,” said Dale Belvin, from Willits, who used to drive for Fortuna Trucking, and also drove for UPS. “You’re only allowed to drive 11 hours in 24 hours. In the old days we used to drive 20 hours in 24 hours. And we could hide those hours in our paper log books by having two of them going at the same time.

“In the old days we could cheat on (CHP) very easily. Now the scales scan your license plates and the electronic tags on them and they can actually tell how long it took you to get from the last scale, so they can tell if you’re speeding and all of that.”

Safety advocates, the American Trucking Association and big motor carriers support the rule, arguing that it would prevent truckers from driving past federal limits determined by the so-called federal hours of service rules.

Large carriers like UPS and FedEx are already using electronic systems to record truckers’ driving time and behavior.

For some independent contractors, however, who have been struggling with the state’s tightening regulations on the trucking industry, the mandate could be the final nail in the coffin, said Fernando Santos, fleet manager at Yandell Truckaway.

Yandell, based in Benicia, has 33 trucks of its own and hires 55 independent contractors. All 55 said they are not interested in switching over, Santos said.

“There’s a very good possibility we could lose some. We lost some when the (state) emissions regulations kicked in, and this is not as expensive, but it is another expense,” he said. “This might be the last straw.”

Regulation to reduce diesel emissions has been ongoing in California over the last decade. The latest stipulates that by 2023 nearly all trucks will need to have 2010 model year engines or the equivalent.

The FMCSA estimates that the average annual cost of an ELD will be $495 per truck, with a range of $165 to $832 per truck on an annualized basis.

To address cost concerns, the FMCSA has provided that “smartphones, tablets, and rugged handhelds” can be used as long as the system as a whole meets ELD requirements, including a hardwired connection to the truck’s engine.

Aside from cost, however, some drivers also cite privacy issues with the mandate.

The Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, a national association of small business truckers with 158,000 members, brought a lawsuit against the mandate. OOIDA said in a statement, “The government’s excuses for mandating electronic logging devices (ELDs) are weak and fail to justify violating the Fourth Amendment rights of professional truck drivers.”

In June, the Supreme Court refused to review the case.

Todd Spencer, executive vice president at drivers association, dismissed the safety administration’s safety issue as “largely balderdash,” saying the mandate has numerous unresolved issues. As the deadline to comply looms, “It becomes more and more obvious not only do our members have issues with the mandate, but generally, small (trucking) business owners don’t see the benefit of incorporating the technology,” he said.

Most ELDs do more than just log hours. They can pass data to a system where a safety or fleet manager can see e-logs in a near real-time basis. Many systems integrate map and route solutions as well, which can help drivers navigate around construction and avoid high-traffic areas.

Santos said the system helps him review reports, and he can tell where the truck has been, the direction and speed.

OOIDA executive Spencer, however, expressed concern that the electronic systems could be hacked with a virus or have control of the truck taken over.

“It’s a colossal mess,” he said. “This is primarily an industry of small business people. The cumulative affect over the last 15 years has caused many (small operators) to say, ‘Forget it. I’m not going to live like this.’”

The drivers association, along with more than a dozen other business organizations, has recently appealed to the House of Representatives to delay the mandate until privacy and security issues are resolved.

Another national organization, however, the California Trucking Association, which provides its members legislative and regulatory representation at state and federal levels, came out in support of the measure in 2012, when the mandate was first introduced.

The average size of CTA members’ fleets is about 30 trucks, and many migrated to the ELD system when buying new trucks to comply with emissions mandates.

The trucking group has about 1,400 members, and none have complained about the mandate, according to Eric Sauer, senior vice president of government affairs.

“This issue has been talked about for over a decade,” Sauer said.