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New systems keep track of trucks and drivers On-board recorders monitor hours, location

For years, Brendan J. Staub sold his electronic truck-tracking and hours-of-service recording system to carriers by stressing efficiency and fleet safety.

And he still does.

But now the Buffalo executive has help when making his pitch -- the muscle of the federal government.

For some trucking companies, not only are the electronic on-board recorders a good idea -- now they're required.

Last year, federal regulators issued a rule requiring trucking companies to install electronic on-board recorders in each of their fleet's vehicles if their operators consistently violate hours-of-service regulations.

No longer can these firms get by with drivers filling out paper logbooks.

The devices automatically register the hours that drivers are behind the wheel, and that's allowing law enforcement agencies to better identify serial violators.

Recently the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration ordered JBS Carriers of Colorado to install electronic on-board recorders on all 700 of its trucks by March or pay civil fines.

Staub sees a day when electronic logging of drivers' hours will be required for all carriers -- not just those that have run afoul of the rules.

Indeed, U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has said a broader rule ordering similar recorders on all commercial trucks and buses will soon come.

"At the end of the day, it's about compliance," said Staub, senior vice president of sales at XATA Turnpike.

After years of pushing for the expanded use of electronic on-board recorders and refining hours of service rules, among other issues, federal regulators are now finalizing long-debated rules that will govern the industry.

And that'll shape in-cab technology.

"We're at the cusp of something completely new. It's been talked about for years. But now it's actually happening," Staub said.

Last month, transportation regulators proposed a new safety regulation that would specifically prohibit interstate commercial truck drivers from using hand-held cell phones while driving.

Companies themselves have been reluctant to put laptop computers in the cab because of cost and the added distraction to drivers.

With the new rules and stepped-up enforcement, more truck companies will turn to products like XATA Turnpike's RouteTracker, a device the size of an EZPass unit that plugs directly into the engine computer.

"The days of just paying a fine [for a violation] and then walking away are over," Staub said. "The reason they are done is because of the safety ratings now being given to companies."

The RouteTracker's electronic on-board recorder transmits GPS and vehicle data to the truck driver's hand-held device and sends it back to a database, from which customers can access their fleet information and generate reports. The on-board recording system, which includes GPS and Bluetooth wireless technology, tracks and scores each driver on speed, fuel economy, hard braking, and other performance and safety factors.

Staub says his company focuses on the software, and that the PDA-based system has little upfront cost.

The benefit to trucking companies?

The electronic logs help prevent hours-of-service violations.

Information that is electronically recorded by drivers' inspecting their trucks helps prevent vehicle-maintenance violations.

A speed management feature provides insight into driver speed versus posted speed.

A scorecard calculated for each driver by the system allows managers to spot risky drivers and retrain or fire them.

Companies that install the device pay the monthly $35-per-truck fee on their Verizon bill.

Companies such as supermarket and drug-store chains that have their own fleets "seem to have adopted the technology sooner than the over-the-road trucker," he said.

"The reality is a majority of the trucking market has not adopted to technology quite as well as the private fleets have," Staub said.

For small trucking companies, cost remains an issue for electronic logging of drivers' hours.

"It's too expensive," said Brian Kimmins, owner of Buffalo Transport Co., with a fleet of 17 trucks that haul goods within 100 miles of Buffalo.

"We have other ways to monitor our drivers," Kimmins said.

An on-board tracking system on each truck allows Kimmins, using a computer back at the office, to check where his trucks are in real-time, shows how fast the drivers are driving, and tracks idling time.

"Our drivers start here in the morning and are back here at night," Kimmins said. "The hours of service issue is for the long-haul drivers."

None of Buffalo Transport's drivers were cited or ordered out of service for exceeding the number of hours they can drive a day, falsifying a logbook or other driver violation in 34 inspections in the past two years, according to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. And the company's truck inspection record was nearly three times better than the national average.

"We've got good employees here," Kimmins said. "The fact they know I know where they're at is also a good thing."

For trucking companies, higher fuel prices and then the recession resulted in a double whammy to their bottom lines, said Kendra L. Adams, executive director of the New York State Motor Truck Association, a trade association off 800 companies in the industry.

"It's been a difficult three to four years, and they're starting to see the recovery," she said.

Whether a company buys the technology to do electronic logging depends on how much they can afford to spend, she said.

"In the last five or six years, we've seen a huge increase in technology in the trucking industry," she said. "A lot of companies utilize tracking so they know where their equipment is. But you're also working to find that balance between increasing efficiency and safety but making sure we're not adding to driver distraction elements in the vehicle."

e-mail: plakamp@buffnews.com