When regulators get it wrong

By John Bendel, editor-at-large

It seemed like a good idea. Talented technology developers convinced safety advocates that their product in trucks would reduce accidents. Both groups helped convince regulators to make the devices mandatory. But the result was not the expected boon to safety.

Sounds like ELDs, doesn’t it? Actually it was more than 40 years ago, and it was anti-lock brakes. The aerospace companies that manufactured them for multi-million-dollar aircraft were certain that anti-lock brakes on big trucks would save lives – and make a lot of money.

In 1975, a NHTSA regulation went into effect and the ABS trucks hit the road. It was clear to many drivers that ABS wasn’t quite ready for the highways. Sometimes trucks pulled to one side, then suddenly veered to the other, even changing lanes. Some drivers reported the wheel being wrenched from their grasp. Technology that was supposed to enhance safety was, in some cases, actually hazardous.

ABS is a great technology, but in 1975 it was too much too soon. A sophisticated aerospace product wasn’t ready for trucking. The rule was eventually upended in court. So those well-intentioned engineers, safety advocates, and regulators had actually pushed a promising technology off a cliff. Most trucks would be without ABS for another 20 years.

Is there a lesson here where ELDs are concerned? How about the changes to the restart provision?

In both cases, regulators – this time FMCSA – have overreached. To enforce elegantly crafted, arithmetically gratifying solutions, they have seriously circumscribed a driver’s real-world options. There is no elegance in the cockeyed realities drivers deal with. Flesh-and-blood bodies simply do not conform to anything so orderly as a statistical norm.

Will regulators eventually relent? Or will courts come to the rescue? We can only hope. LL