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Digital hour-logging is mandatory for truckers. Surveillance experts worry it won’t stop there

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Technology to track truckers while they’re on the road could be a canary in the coal mine for workplace surveillance, experts say.

Electronic logging devices (ELD) are billed as a way to make roads safer by keeping truckers accountable to their allowed hours of service. But the devices raise questions about what information employers are collecting about their workers.

“People sort of tend to view the trucker as an ‘other,'” said Karen Levy, author of Data Driven: Truckers, Technology and the New Workplace Surveillance. “They maybe say … ‘You know, that maybe makes sense for truckers, but it wouldn’t make sense for me.'”

“The issues truckers are facing, I think, are issues that everybody is beginning to face — particularly post-pandemic — as these technologies become used in more remote work.”

Transport Canada will begin enforcing the use of ELDs for certain commercial vehicle drivers, such as long-haul truckers, on Jan. 1, 2023. The regulation, which came into effect in June 2021, aims to track a driver’s hours of service — the amount of time they can be behind the wheel on any given day. ELDs have been required in the United States since 2017. 

In addition to logging the number of hours a driver operates the vehicles, the devices can track information such as vehicle location and speed.

digital hour logging is mandatory for truckers surveillance experts worry it wont stop there
A driver holds an ELD in his truck. Transport Canada regulation requires the devices to undergo third-party certification and comply with technical standards. (Gary Solilak/CBC)

Levy said that the proliferation of ELDs has opened the doors for other monitoring systems that can monitor driving behaviours, like hard braking or swerving, and may include driver-facing cameras that use artificial intelligence to track eye movements and check for signs of drowsiness. 

The devices don’t address the factors she says are driving fatigue among many truckers, including declining wages over decades.

“If you look at the way that people respond to these things — and I think the way any of us would respond — what that ends up meaning is that workers feel kind of a lack of dignity in their job, they feel a lack of trust in their job” said Levy, an assistant professor of information science at Cornell University in New York. 

“And that often, you know, runs people out of those jobs.”

A woman, wearing a blue t-shirt and tortoise-shell cat-eye glasses, poses for a photo with her hand on her waist.
Karen Levy, an assistant professor of information sciences at Cornell University in New York, says the proliferation of ELDs has opened the doors for other monitoring systems that can monitor driving behaviours. (Lindsay France/Cornell University)

ELDs add transparency, says association

The Canadian Trucking Alliance (CTA), a group representing trucking associations across the country, says it’s “100 per cent supportive” of the federal government’s ELD mandate.

“They add transparency, they level the playing field, they save time for drivers and companies … [and] they add accountability to the entire process,” said Geoff Wood, senior vice-president of communications for CTA.

Under federal hours of service rules, drivers are not allowed to drive more than 13 hours in a day.

The incoming mandate, he says, aims to automate the process of logging their driving hours, something they are already doing manually. Drivers previously filled out paper log books. 

That’s left the system open to abuse by some drivers and companies who manipulate hours, Wood says. Transport Canada estimates five to 10 per cent of drivers routinely exceed allowable hours of service. Digital tracking will help alleviate that, CTA argues.

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Proponents say that ELDs will hold truckers accountable for the amount of time they spend driving, ultimately making roads safer. (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press)

Wood said that separate systems, like the driver monitoring systems Levy mentions, go beyond the federal ELD mandate and would be a “business decision.”

But ELDs signal a continuing trend of what Vass Bednar, the executive director of the Master of Public Policy program at McMaster University, calls the “datafication” of work, particularly among front-line workers.

She says, for example, fast-food workers have their drive-through times monitored, call centre operators have the number of calls they take counted, and delivery drivers are tracked on the number of packages they drop off. 

Using ELDs to improve safety for drivers and the public can be valuable, but potentially using that data to improve efficiency could prove problematic, she said.

“When that surveillance is used to ‘data-ify’ the job and track how many deliveries that person made in a day, and pushing them to cut corners or accelerate through red lights, or causing people to urinate or defecate in bottles in their truck because they’re fearful of taking any time off to tend to natural bodily functions, then I think we’re using it improperly,” Bednar said.

In a statement, Transport Canada said that ELDs must comply with specific technical standards that protect a driver’s privacy. For example, when a vehicle is in operation for personal use, the standard limits recorded data to a “strict minimum,” it said. The department acknowledged, however, that some ELD vendors may include features beyond the scope of what’s required under federal regulation.

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Vass Bednar, the executive director of the Master of Public Policy program at McMaster University, says using ELD data to improve efficiency could prove problematic. (McMaster University)

Balancing data with rights of workers

Surveillance has been sold as a way to make the world safer and improve people’s lives, but there’s little data to indicate that’s true, said Albert Fox Cahn, executive director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project.

“Whether it’s the home security system that tracks us when we go in and out of our house, or whether it’s corporate surveillance in the office, people keep seeing this as the symbol of safety,” said Cahn. 

A 2021 study by researchers at the University of Arkansas found that while driver compliance around hours of service improved, accidents increased following the introduction of the ELD mandate in the U.S.

“Surprisingly, the number of accidents for the most-affected carriers — those operators for whom the federal mandate was intended — did not decrease,” said research associate Andrew Balthrop in a news release. 

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ELDs, which track a driver’s hours of service, have been mandatory in the United States since 2017. (Damian Dovarganes/The Associated Press)

Levy, who interviewed truckers in the U.S. for her recently released book, said they carry a deep sense of pride for their work — and many took on the job because of its autonomy. In a truck cab, there is no boss constantly looking over your shoulder.

The ELD mandate, Levy added, has led some experienced drivers with proven safety records to leave the industry.

“The people who are, I think, less resistant are the young, new drivers,” she said. “You don’t necessarily want to be next to a brand new, 18 year old with a brand new [commercial driver’s license].”

As the pandemic pushes workplace surveillance into white-collar jobs, thanks in part to the explosion of remote work, Bednar says questions are emerging about how businesses are using employee data.

What that means for workers, however, is still unclear.

“We’re in a data-hungry moment. We want to learn as much about our business so we can make good decisions, and that’s true,” she said.

“But balancing that with the proportionality and the rights of workers is not something that I think any one jurisdiction has quite figured out just yet.”

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