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As trucker’s firing shows, electronic log devices not a cure-all

Written by Steve Gursten Posted July 19th, 2017

He admitted to using a fake logbook instead of electronic log devices, and racking up dangerous 20-hour road stints. His speaking out exposes the system’s flaws

electronic log devices

Technology will make us more safe. But it will not prevent all truck accidents. As lawyers, we hear and read about people scamming the system to get around the mandatory safety rules that are meant to protect everyone on the road and make commercial trucks safer.

In this instance, it’s the electronic log devices that the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration mandated, as of 2017, for all semi-trucks and commercial motor vehicles.

They’re meant to better enforce existing hours of service laws for commercial truckers.

By replacing paper log books, the electronic log devices will monitor engine hours, vehicle movement, miles driven and location information. Truck operators will adhere to the mandatory rest breaks and avoid fatigue. In turn, road safety will improve — an estimated 26 lives will be saved and 562 injuries resulting from crashes will be prevented, according to the FMSCA.

Many of these lives that will be saved will be the truck drivers themselves.

In many of our own cases for truckers who are injured or even killed, it’s the trucking company and even the safety director who is putting pressure on these drivers to violate the rules and federal regulations.

Improvements like electronic log devices make it harder for companies to do this. But, as you’ll see below, not impossible.

We’re getting better, but USA Today investigation shows some truckers still scamming safety rules

Improvements, like electronic log devices, are something we attorneys at the Truck Roundtable law firm have long advocated for, both as safety advocates and for each of us when we were President of the American Association for Justice Truck Accident Litigation Group, and we would lobby for laws that would better protect the public.

But as a recent USA Today investigation revealed, truck drivers are still fudging the numbers.

One trucker told his story about why he felt he was forced to do so — and when he spoke out about it, the company fired him.

Normally, I’d say good on them. The last thing any of us wants is a trucker coming anywhere near us with a big rig and 20 straight, sleepless hours behind the wheel.

But Rene Flores’ story makes me angry at the company for what it did to him. It should make you feel the same way.

Bypassing electronic log devices when the maximum’s reached

According to the July 10, 2017, USA Today story, Flores was a Southern California port trucker who frequently hauled shipping containers. He admitted to switching over from using electronic log devices to a fake paper logbook in order to bypass the fatigue laws, as he was regularly exceeding the maximum service hours.

Flores, 36, said Morgan Southern, the carrier he worked for, hit him with a double whammy: not only was he not getting paid enough to get by, but Morgan Southern also charged him an exorbitant amount much for his leased truck. Further, Flores said Morgan Southern knew about his hours, but for years looked the other way.

When Flores spilled the beans about his illegal hours in a June 16, 2017, USA TODAY Network exposé, Morgan Southern didn’t just terminate him — the company also took his truck.

Flores was 10 months away from the end of his leased truck contract but couldn’t afford the remaining $30,000 balance. He lost $60,000 in lease payments he had made since 2013.

As the news story described the situation:

“What happened to Flores is just the latest episode in a decade-long struggle that has seen hundreds of port truckers in California turned into modern-day indentured servants.”

Retaliation for speaking up

Many drivers, the story says, claimed they were forced to sign lease-to-own truck contracts, which often put the drivers in debt to their employers. As you can imagine, the only way for the drivers to pay it all off is to work extra hours — and violate the law in doing so.

If they refused to work or file complaints, they said they faced retaliation such as lower-paying routes that would put them in even more debt — not just with paying off the lease, but the monthly truck maintenance, which can run up in the thousands.

Another Morgan Southern driver, Jose Juan Rodriguez, said he had a similar situation, and often would drive well past the legal limit.

“Many times, we complain to the supervisor but we’re told that if we aren’t willing to work, ‘there is the door.’”

Meanwhile, Morgan Southern was found to have 15 hour-violation citations in California, per Department of Transportation inspection reports.

If only everyone in the process was on board with electronic log devices …

This angers me to no end. I know there are good truckers and good carriers out there, ones who follow the law and have ideal safety records.

But when someone has seemingly no choice but to stop using electronic log devices — devices that would prevent asleep-at-the-wheel accidents — and the company looks the other way, I wonder whether the system has truly failed.

The trucking industry is already in a bad place. A key FMCSA trucking safety proposal is dead in a ditch, while some trucking companies are found to have records that would make anyone want to stop driving near or around trucks at all.

I understand Flores’ plight and why he had to do what he did. But I don’t hold him up to be a hero, even if some would say that he courageously called out Morgan Southern. He still put people’s lives at risk, and he knew that.

If there’s anything to positive to come out of this, it’s the national exposure the story has received. With it comes hope that the FMSCA will look closer into incidents like Flores’, and that its mandate for electronic log devices will come with stiffer penalties.

Because just like with computers, smartphones and telecommunications being hacked, unlocked or tapped, truckers will find ways to cheat the system — even if for the cause of keeping their livelihood. And if the carrier keeps its bottom line solid throughout it all, who’s to stop them?

Steve Gursten

About Steve Gursten

Attorney Steven Gursten is president of the Motor Vehicle Trial Lawyers Association and past president of the American Association for Justice Truck Accident Litigation Group. Steve has been named a Lawyers Weekly "Leader in the Law" for his efforts to prevent truck accidents and promote national truck safety. He was also a Michigan Lawyers Weekly "Lawyer of the Year" for a record settlement in a truck accident case, as well as for recovering the top auto and truck verdict in four of the past eight years. He is a "Top 100 Super Lawyer," is listed in Best Lawyers in America, and has been awarded an AV-rating by Martindale-Hubbell, which is the highest rating for legal ability and ethics. Steve speaks to lawyers throughout the country on truck accident litigation. He is a founding member of the Truck Accident Attorneys Roundtable, head of Michigan Auto Law, and has dedicated his legal career to making our roads safer.
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