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Truckers Navigate Change to Implement ELDs

New federal regulations have a big impact on agriculture.

As director of operations for her family’s farm-based trucking firm – Rocky Wells Trucking, Inc. – in Lexington, South Carolina, Loni Rikard coordinates and manages the operations of 12 trucks and their drivers in the hauling of farm commodities across the Southeast.

The recent enactment of federal rulings affecting all commercial carriers is complicating Rikard’s days. Her drivers are also trying to cope with the complexity of the new federal mandates beginning to take effect.

Improving transportation safety was the intent behind the recently enacted rulings requiring commercial carriers to install electronic logging devices (ELDs) to document hours of service.

“For us, the regulations are making the roads less – rather than more – safe,” says Rikard.

Loni Rickard
Issued in 2015, the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Final Rule on Electronic Logging Devices (ELDs) and Hours of Service (HOS) took effect on December 18, 2017. Administered by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA), the ruling requires trucks to be equipped with ELDs. Large trucking firms operating thousands of trucks tend to support the ruling.

An ELD synchronizes with a vehicle’s engine to automatically record driving time. The electronic data on an ELD can be accessed by a company dispatcher as well as by a law enforcement officer observing any unusual behaviors of a commercial driver on the road.

The device replaces the paper logs drivers kept previously in order to document HOS time. The HOS regulations were put in play to prevent the driver fatigue that potentially leads to road accidents.

But these HOS regulations, as they play out in the road experiences of drivers, are deeply flawed, particularly for small-scale agricultural haulers, says Rikard. “The ELD mandate has served to shine a light on the problems with HOS regulations.”

Current HOS rules mandate that a driver can only be on duty for 14 hours and can actively drive for no more than 11 of those hours. Drivers attaining those maximum-hour allotments must stop and rest for 10 consecutive hours. “Eight of those hours must be spent in the sleeper,” she says.

One Size Does Not Fit All

For livestock haulers, in particular, the rules are nightmarish.

“Livestock welfare is at stake,” says Volga, South Dakota, soybean grower and cattle feeder Scott VanderWal, vice president of the American Farm Bureau Federation. “Cattle, hogs, or bees – these all suffer if a driver stops alongside the road because he or she runs out of hours.”

Running out of hours is easy. Causes are as common as waiting in line to load, poor visibility, slippery roads, truck malfunction, and heavy traffic. Notations in paper log books formerly helped drivers navigate these delays as humanely as possible to livestock.

“Long-distance transport can be the most stressful event in an animal’s life,” says Steve Hilker, owner of a livestock-hauling firm in Cimarron, Kansas, and chairman of the Transportation Committee of the U.S. Cattlemen’s Association.

“Commercial livestock trailers are designed to minimize this stress by providing air-ride suspension and punch-hole siding to vent humidity,” he says. “Drivers ensure animals are cared for during the trip by maximizing movement, which increases airflow and animal comfort while minimizing delay without compromising the drivers’ existing excellent safety record.”

Forcing drivers to stop because they’ve run out of hours leaves animals standing in trailers with little air movement. Yet, previous legislation, too, limits the time livestock can be loaded. Unloading and reloading then become the only options. These are also stressful to livestock. Infrastructure for unloading livestock along travel routes is limited and poses disease risks to animals.

A petition to the FMCSA by the livestock industry addresses these issues. The National Pork Producers Council submitted the petition, which was cosigned by the American Beekeeping Federation, the American Farm Bureau Federation, the Livestock Marketing Association, the National Aquaculture Association, the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, the North American Meat Institute, and the U.S. Cattlemen’s Association.

The petition requests “a waiver and limited exemption for livestock carriers” from the ELD ruling so the issues affecting livestock haulers can be studied more closely.

The FMCSA did indeed grant a 90-day exemption, but it doesn’t go far enough, says VanderWal. “It needs to be delayed longer so that the unintended effects on the agricultural industry can be studied further,” he explains. “There needs to be a lot more common sense reflected in these rulings.”

A temporary or permanent agricultural exemption from the ELD mandate along with a revision of the HOS rules would relieve heavy burdens not just for livestock haulers, but for small agricultural trucking firms, in general, says Rikard.

Big trucking firms, she notes, have an inherently different operating mode than that of small firms. The clients of small, agricultural trucking lines are typically farmers and ranchers. They depend on the humanity and commitment of their service providers. There’s a relationship between trucker and farmer. When Rikard and her drivers are bound by excessive red tape, they can’t meet their clients’ needs, she says.

“A lot of our customers are dairy producers,” she points out. “Many only have room in their commodity sheds for one load of feed at a time. It has to be delivered like clockwork. If a driver gets held up for whatever reason and is only an hour away from their place when he technically runs out of hours by the HOS rules, that puts our dairy producer-customer at great risk. If we don’t deliver the feed, the cows will drop in milk production and experience a health risk when they do go back on feed.”

Changes in HOS regulations, she says, could permit drivers to split time spent in the sleeper. Rather than being required to spend eight consecutive hours in the sleeper, drivers could elect to sleep for three or four hours and then continue driving. This would let them take better advantage of unexpected delays.

This flexibility, she adds, could also be helpful when drivers are approaching heavy traffic while getting moderately tired because they are nearing but haven’t yet reached the end of their shift. Having the freedom to nap in the sleeper and have it credited toward sleep time rather than on-duty time, makes sense for their driving logs and helps them drive more safely.

“A driver knows the limitations and strengths of his own body and when he needs to rest way better than somebody in Washington and certainly better than a computerized unit in a truck,” she says.

If safety is indeed at the heart of the ELD and HOS mandates, Rikard believes agricultural haulers are being unfairly penalized for safety problems that are more prevalent in the larger commercial trucking lines. Most of her drivers are experienced, she points out, and have ag backgrounds requiring them to learn responsibility and mechanical prowess at a young age.

Ag's Superior Safety Record

When it comes to livestock carriers, research documents a safety record superior to the trucking industry in general. The livestock industry’s petition to the FMCSA for a waiver cites findings from the Large Truck Crash Causation Study, conducted by the FMCSA and the National Highway Traffic Safety Institute. The study showed that of 1,123 accidents involving trucks hauling cargo, only five involved the transporting of livestock.

Similarly, the petition points out, a 2005 report put out by the Transportation Research Institute showed that of 5,343 trucks involved in fatal accidents, livestock transporters accounted for just 39, or 0.7%.

“The ELD mandate itself,” states the petition, “does nothing to improve that record of safety. Rather, it amounts to a radically inefficient exercise requiring the use of expensive and complicated technology, which is prone to failure and mistakes, in place of the proven, long-standing and cost-effective method of logging hours already used by the agency.”

Despite the challenges, Rikard has indeed installed ELDs on all her trucks in order to meet the compliance deadline. “I rent the equipment for $45 a month per truck,” she says. “I also must provide each driver with a tablet equipped with GPS. The cost of the data plan comes to an additional $65 a month per truck. These are unnecessary costs when we’re not recouping any additional benefit from them.”

System malfunctions have already turned up. “I have found some serious limitations,” she says. “Because the system operates off of GPS data, it’ll lose connections when the drivers are traveling in the mountains. I am spending an inordinate amount of my time dealing with the ELDs, and it’s taking away from my time spent effectively managing the company.”

Steve Hilker’s plans for the future are to sidestep the need for ELDs by modifying his commercial hauls to fit into the FMCSA’s exemptions for agricultural haulers. The exemptions cover most farmers and ranchers.

“We haul cattle from feedlots to packers, and I’m located within a 150-mile radius of four large packers,” he says. “That hauling distance is exempt from the ELD mandate. And eight days of the month, we can haul outside the 150-mile radius as long as we keep paper logs on those days. All of this will take extra management, and I will stop making the longer hauls that I have done in the past..”

Some smaller commercial agricultural carriers may stop hauling altogether in response to the mandates.

“Major trucking companies can handle the extra expense and extra management required,” says VanderWal. “In South Dakota, we’ve got a lot of single-truck, commercial operators. They don’t have time for all the red tape, and the extra cost is a hardship. We’ve heard reports of many of these drivers saying they’re going to hang it up if this thing takes effect. We’re going to lose a lot of those seasoned drivers.” 

Below are four potential alternatives to the ELD mandates for those in agriculture.

  1. Allow an exemption for livestock truckers and for small-scale agricultural carriers, who would continue keeping paper logs.
  2. Allow haulers to use the entire 14 hours of on-duty time for transporting livestock, especially in warm weather.
  3. Allow a 150-air mile grace period at the conclusion of a haul. This would allow a hauler to conclude his journey if he is within 150 air miles of his destination when he runs out of drive time.
  4. Allow a split sleeper-berth provision. This would allow haulers to take rests in their sleeper berths. Any time over two hours could be a credit for additional drive time.

Learn more about current exemptions for agriculture and the FMCSA’s invitation for public participation in the decision-making process at fmcsa.dot.gov/eld.