View from the Edge

Where the Answers Lie: Effective Research on the Web

In this issue, CarriersEdge co-founder Mark Murrell discusses how to find useful, reliable information on the Internet.

In April, hard enforcement of the ELD mandate began. This wasn't earth shattering news, since the official regulation went into effect last December, and it was widely discussed before and after both of those dates. At this point, pretty much everyone has devices implemented in their fleets and they're working to optimize their business around the new realities.

However, we still get questions about the specifics of the regulation, and what, exactly, people need to do to be compliant. I understand why people leave these things to the last minute - you never know if a reg is going to be delayed by some legal or political challenge - so the procrastinating doesn't surprise me much.

What does surprise me, though, is how much people struggle to find the information when they get serious about making the changes. We see that struggle all the time in the questions they ask us. Here's one that someone asked me recently:

"We've got ELDs in all our trucks, but we were told we have to go through a certification process as well. What training is required for that?"

I feel bad when I get questions like this, because it looks like this person is trying to do the right thing, and I suspect they've been given incomplete, and likely incorrect, information. I've seen this happen many times before - people hear about reg changes, they start asking around within their existing circles, hear some scary stories about what's coming, and end up confused and worried.

It's an unfortunate situation that seems to come primarily from two things:

  • Many people struggle doing research on the web
  • A cottage industry of experts, with varying quality and scruples, has popped up to "help" those people struggling with research

These two things play off each other, with these "experts" reinforcing the myth that regulatory information can't easily be found or understood, thereby justifying their existence. People believe that myth so they don't bother checking for themselves and increasingly rely on others.

However, the reality is quite the opposite - in most cases the regulatory information is easily found on government websites, if you know how to look for it. And, more and more, those regulations are accompanied by interpretation guides, FAQs, info sessions, and a variety of other tools to help people add context and understand the changes. No outside consultants needed, at all!

I should be clear that I don't have a problem with people consulting with experts to shape their policies and operational plans. Every business needs to get a range of inputs to ensure balance and avoid leadership blind spots. We have many reseller partners that provide this type of guidance, and I know they're a valuable resource for their customers.

But I also know that there are consultants who do little more than copy the information from government websites and regurgitate it to customers for a fee (and often a ridiculous fee at that). Those people don't offer any real value, and in many cases just open up their customers to liability and fines through their poor guidance.

The good news is that by employing some basic research principles, anyone can get a good sense of what's happening with any regulatory change, without needing to pay someone to read a website on their behalf. Our core business is based on rapidly learning about a subject area, then building effective educational content around it, so solid basic research skills are a fundamental requirement here. We each have our own specific tricks, but here are some things that I've found work really well, and how they might be applied to the ELD question noted above.

Start with Google

If you're looking for information on a government regulation, you're going to end up on a government website, but which one? And what part of it? You don't know that in the beginning, but that's okay because Google indexes all of them.

If you're researching ELDs, you probably know that it's coming from FMCSA, but finding the right section on the FMCSA site can be tough, and there may be other resources beyond their basic site, so Google is a great place to get started.

Focus on basic keywords, but be specific

Keywords related to subject are great, since that helps to narrow down the search. In the case of acronyms, include the long form (if you know it) or as many related words as you know. Acronyms often have many different meanings so adding some clarifying terms can really help.

It's also a good idea to specify the industry, region, and maybe even a related job title. Remember, Google indexes the worldwide web, so that covers all jurisdictions, industry sectors, and job roles. I learned that lesson years ago when I was searching for IIBA - the International Institute of Business Analysts - but didn't specify anything beyond the acronym so I got two pages of hits on the Irish Indoor Bowling and Indian Business Associations instead!

ELD is a pretty safe acronym, especially since there's been A LOT written about the issue lately, but it would certainly be worth referencing drivers as well, since there are elements of the reg that apply to different groups. And since the request is really about what training people are required to have, a search for "ELD driver training requirements" should provide a solid set of hits.

Check the URL

Once you've got a page of hits, the temptation is to click the first link and go from there. That's certainly what Google wants you to do, since the first link will always be an ad, and Google makes money when you click it!

Instead, look past the hits labelled 'ad', 'sponsored link' or 'sponsored content' and look at the first few hits beyond that. Check the URL for the hit - showing in green text under the main link title - and you'll see that some are official sources (the FMCSA sites, in this case), some are vendors selling products related to your search, and some will be media, discussion forums, etc.

Reading URLs can be a bit tricky and counterintuitive, so here are some tips to remember:

  • Official sites will almost always have long URLs because regs will be part of a larger government website. The URL for the ELD mandate on the FMCSA site is https://www.fmcsa.dot.gov/hours-service/elds/electronic-logging-devices, which is actually fairly straightforward, as these things go, but still a bit of a mouthful.
  • The shorter, obvious URLs will usually lead somewhere completely wrong, or will be an enterprising vendor who's staking out territory around the reg. As an example, eldratings.com and eldfacts.com are both setup by vendors with related services.
  • The official sites may not be first in the list. Depending on the keywords you use, other sites may get listed first so it's important to look through at least the first page of hits.

Start with the official sites, since your best bet is always to go straight to the source for this information. In many cases, that will be all you need to figure out what's going on. After reading the official sites, the media and discussion forums can be useful for adding context or highlighting points of uncertainty, but keep in mind that information accuracy declines with each degree of separation from the source so consider multiple sources at this level.

Don't forget Wikipedia

Wikipedia is often overlooked, but it can be a great source of information and context about regulatory changes. Its usefulness will depend on the scope of the regulatory change, and it is subject to occasional tampering so it shouldn't be used in isolation, but the plain language, just-the-facts approach can often be exactly what you need to clarify a high level understanding of a particular subject.

In the case of our ELD example, the Wikipedia entry is actually pretty sparse. It's short and mostly links to other official sites, but it's still a give high level overview of the issue. Wikipedia does have great information about other trucking-related subjects (for instance, the FSMA entry is outstanding).

Check back regularly

When new regulations come out, government agencies will typically put out basic information, then expand that as time goes on. This is particularly true of FAQs and interpretation notes, which develop over time as they receive questions and comments from the field. You may check a website and find very sparse information today, but a month from now it may be full of helpful details.

Check multiple sources

I referenced this a few times above, but it's important to check multiple sources. If one source (particularly a secondary source like a discussion forum) mentions something that seems odd and you can't find it noted elsewhere, it might be a mistaken interpretation. There's always uncertainty in the early days of a regulation and it's not uncommon for people to get things completely wrong just because of that.

I remember when CSA first came out (back when it was CSA 2010) and there was starting to be a lot of talk about fatigue issues and sleep apnea in particular. There was actually discussion in a public forum that if a driver had a CPAP machine visible in the cab during a roadside inspection, then the officer would take that to mean the person had sleep apnea and was therefore likely be fatigued, leading to a fatigue violation. This was ridiculous on a number of levels, but that kind of uncertainty pops up in the early days of a new regulation, so it's important to check multiple sources.

Following those steps, I've found I can get a good sense of a regulation pretty fast. I may not know every detail of every part of the reg, but I'll know the big parts, have a good sense of how it's going to impact different people, and know where I need to drill down further. It's a quick, reliable, and repeatable process that anyone can use on their own - no consultants needed!

View from the Edge is a bi-monthly review of best practices in risk management, driver development, and technology for the trucking industry, produced by CarriersEdge.

CarriersEdge provides interactive online driver training for the North American trucking industry. A comprehensive library of safety and compliance courses is supplemented with extensive content creation and customization options, full featured survey tools, detailed management reports, and the industry's first dedicated mobile app for driver training.

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