New Federal Law Would Require “Black Box” Truck Data Recorders

Congress is currently considering a transportation spending bill that would mandate the use of “black boxes” in commercial carriers. The bill would require the installation of electronic control modules, commonly known as black boxes, to ensure that truckers follow federal hours-of-service rules. These rules are designed to combat the driver fatigue that is a major cause of truck accidents. Black box time-keeping capabilities would supplement current trucker self-reporting of hours on paper time sheets and log books.

Black Boxes

Many American trucks already include a black box. The device measures truck data, including time driven, average speed, highest speed, seat belt use and other operational data. The data is stored for a certain period, usually 30 days.

The black box is particularly useful for determining the cause of truck accidents. For example, black box data may show whether the truck was speeding before an accident or if the driver was complying with hours-of-service requirements. Failure to conform to these rules may provide evidence of fatigued truck driving.

Truck driver fatigue is a major problem. Studies suggest that a third of truck drivers have problems managing sleep and fatigue levels. Some experts suggest that the strong pressure on drivers to cut costs is leading many to drive while fatigued.

Debate Over Proposed Law

There is significant disagreement over the proposed law. The Owner-Operator Independent Driver Association, one of two major national trucking organizations, says that black boxes are unreliable and invade a drivers’ privacy. Critics also say the cost of black box installation and maintenance is prohibitive. Further, by providing a means for carriers to check whether truck drivers work whenever permitted by hours-of-service regulations, the safety goals may backfire because companies may encourage fatigued drivers to keep working.

On the other side, the American Trucking Association says the law would help reduce paper recordkeeping costs, combat dishonesty in time-keeping, and promote safe driving practices.

Carriers that already adopted black boxes have seen substantial safety benefits. For example, Schneider National experienced a significant reduction in driver fatigue and resulting accidents since 2010.

It remains to be seen whether the bill will pass Congressional approval. The House is currently reviewing the changes made by the Senate.