(UPDATED, March 15) Truckers hauling agricultural commodities have another three months of freedom from the Department of Transportation’s electronic logging device (ELD) mandate.
The exemption won’t help truckers who haul produce one way and backhaul with non-ag goods, however.
The U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration on March 13 announced an additional 90-day temporary waiver from the electronic logging device rule for agriculture-related transportation, five days before the current waiver would have expired. The extension will push the ELD deadline for haulers of ag commodities to mid-June.
“We continue to see strong compliance rates across the country that improve weekly, but we are mindful of the unique work our agriculture community does and will use the following 90 days to ensure we publish more helpful guidance that all operators will benefit from,” FMCSA Administrator Ray Martinez said in a news release.
The ELD exemption for haulers of agricultural commodities isn’t that helpful to most cross-country truckers, said Kenny Lund, vice president of operations for the Allen Lund Co., La Cañada Flintridge, Calif.
“The carriers we use, we are sending (East) with produce, so they get the exemption,” Lund said. “But on the way back they are not bringing back ag commodities, so they lose their exemption,” Lund said.
The FMCSA also plans to publish final guidance on both the agricultural 150 air-mile hours-of-service exemption and personal conveyance (such as when an off-duty driver uses the truck to return home or leaves home to make a pick up).
Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said in a statement that the ELD mandate lacks the necessary flexibility for hauling agricultural commodities.
“If the agriculture industry had been forced to comply by the March 18 deadline, live agricultural commodities, including plants and animals, would have been at risk of perishing before they reached their destination,” Perdue said. “The 90-day extension is critical to give DOT additional time to issue guidance on hours-of-service and other ELD exemptions that are troubling for agriculture haulers.”
The announcement was welcomed by industry advocates.
“United Fresh commends administrator Martinez for acknowledging the unique needs of the fresh produce industry and appreciates FMCSA’s engagement with us thus far,” Robert Guenther, senior vice president of public policy for United Fresh Produce Association, said in a statement. “We look forward to continuing to work with FMCSA as this process moves forward and look forward to the upcoming release of their final guidance on this issue.” The additional 90-day waiver and upcoming guidance will help, in Guenther’s words, to “clarify some of the unique issue areas faced by fresh produce carriers hauling highly perishable and time-sensitive commodities to American consumers.”
Ken Gilliland, director of international trade and transportation for Western Growers, Irvine, Calif., said the industry is not ready to comply with the ELD mandate and wanted a longer exemption.
“It is better than not extending it, and it gives us a little bit of time,” he said March 13. The temporary waiver for agriculture haulers will extend to June 16, he said.
“Hopefully by then (FMCSA) will come out with a final decision on whether or not it will be a permanent exemption,” Gilliland said.
If truckers are hauling fresh produce from shipping point areas, they are exempt from hours-of-service regulations within a 150-mile air radius of origin. Beyond that radius, Gilliland said the hours-of-service rules kick in. During the exemption period, carriers may use paper logs to record the hours of service.
Guidance and enforcement
The FMCSA said in the release it will continue outreach for assistance to the agricultural industry regarding the ELD rule.
Since December 2017, compliance with the hours-of-service record-keeping requirements, including the ELD rule, has been increasing, the agency said. Compliance reached a high of 96% in the most recent available data, according to the release. The release said there are more than 330 ELD devices listed on the registration list. Starting April 1, full enforcement of the ELD rule begins for those carriers who are not exempt.
Carriers that do not have an ELD when required will be placed out of service, according to the FMCSA.
Though April 1 is supposed to be the period of tighter enforcement of the ELD mandate, Lund said Highway Patrol officers cannot connect to many of the electronic logging devices. Truckers can get an 8-day exemption to use a paper log if their electronic logging device is not working, so enforcement efforts could be frustrated by the fact the technology doesn’t work.
“It is going to be hard to give somebody a ticket on this because there are so many systems that don’t work well,” Lund said.
Truckers may also fight the ELD mandate in court, much like drivers have brought lawsuits against traffic cameras at stop lights. “Nobody likes to give out violations or tickets that they will end up in court on,” Lund said.
Lund predicts the focus of industry lobbying efforts will be to change the hours of service rule to redefine what is off duty and what is on duty time for drivers, particularly relating to time spent waiting for loading and unloading.
While truck rates have backed off since December, Lund said trucking rates for produce lanes are still up 8% to 20% compared with a year ago. Fuel prices are also up a bit. Long-term trucking pricing contracts could be up 8% to 10% over a year ago he said.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture reported truck rates from California’s Kern District to New York were $6,800 on March 13, up 17% from $5,800 to $6,000 the same time a year ago.
Truck rates are likely to increase by late March with the Easter push, with Memorial Day and then summer fruit volume putting pressure on through September, Lund said.
With the broader economy doing well, Lund said signs point to higher tonnage and firm truck rates.
Sales of Class A trucks have been at record levels in recent months, which should help increase truck availability over time, Lund said.
“If you are spending $150,000 on a truck, you will find a driver,” he said. “That will increase the capacity.”