Book by Cornell professor takes skeptical look at ELDs, surveillance

A new book questions whether the federal ELD mandate, which takes full effect in late 2019, will achieve its safety goals.

Karen Levy is Associate Professor of Information Science at Cornell University and the author of the recently published book, Driven by Data: Trucks, Technology, and the New Workplace Surveillance. In an interview with FreightWaves, he said that worker tracking was the main focus of his research, and that it drew his attention to trucking.

“I don’t see this as an objection to the mandate,” Levy said for those trying to find a conclusion about the ELD in his work. “I think we need to know what problems the ELD mandate is solving and what it isn’t.”

Levy’s work for the book spanned nearly three years, 11 states and discussions with “hundreds” of truckers. He went to events like the MidAmerica Truck Show (MATS) in Louisville, Kentucky, “and would talk to anybody who would talk to me.”

Fortunately, most of his field work was completed before the pandemic began.

“My main suggestion is that policymakers should think about making sure that the solution to the problem is the right strategy for this problem,” Levy told FreightWaves. “If people are too tired behind the wheel, let’s deal with that instead of policing more.”

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Levy said the ELD mandate was “issued in response to hours-of-service regulations and as a safety measure” under the assumption that it would reduce excessive driving conditions that lead to fatigue and accidents.

But he said “the data we have doesn’t show that too much has been done to help with safety.” Different data reflecting post-pandemic events mean that “it is far from clear that the ELD mandate will succeed on its own terms.”

(For example, truck fatality figures for 2021 were the highest in years.)

“If the problem in trucking is that crashes are caused by fatigue, then we need to focus on the root causes of that,” Levy said, describing the technology and ELDs as just a “band aid” to those root problems.

In the book, Levy discusses the relationship between ELDs and “other forms of monitoring that are often embedded in broader fleet management systems.” Speed ​​cameras and technology all fall into this category, he said. ELDs in this network “become such a foundation to support their performance management and tracking systems.”

Given that other types of such equipment have not been mandated by the government, Levy said given all the attention the ELD rule has received, “the government’s mandate may be limited in scope.”

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Here’s what anyone thinking of buying this book should know: It’s not just about ELDs. But the ELD mandate, Levy said, is “difficult to separate from the broader controls that truckers place on themselves.”

But the mandate is close to what trucks do around the clock, making them “the canary in the coal mine,” Levy said. Even if the ELD mandate isn’t as far-reaching in its penetration as some of its opponents say, this “broader control of the workplace … has really changed what it means to be a trucker.”

Levy admits that “it is difficult to find productions without such control.” But its growth in trucking means rules and regulations prevent veteran drivers from “knowing the local conditions and what it means to be a trucker.”

That “surveillance” could hit some other industries sooner than trucking, he said, because with the dispersed nature of truck drivers, oversight would be more difficult than on an office or factory floor. So, “in a sense, trucks are going where others have been for a while,” Levy said.

But trucking surveillance is now “part of a broader dynamic, so I hope the book will be of interest not only to truckers, but to anyone who cares about workplace surveillance,” he added.

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Levy said it is “extremely difficult” to tighten controls on trucking because “truckers stay in their cabins for a long time.”

In addition, many people behind the wheel “chose this industry because they want independence and freedom.” Control can be a tough pill to swallow for them, Levy said.

He pointed to one area that could help with the fatigue problem: focusing on detention time. The book also cites parking shortages as a major cause of fatigue, which ELDs alone cannot solve.

While Levy believes ELDs won’t solve the safety and attrition problem, he says “getting rid of them won’t solve the problems either.” But “in some ways they are disturbing.”

“The point of the book is not to say, ‘Let’s repeal the mandate,'” Levy said. “Let’s do the things that should have been mandated but not done.”

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