A little over a year ago, Caltrans started outfitting its vast fleet with computerized satellite-tracking devices that monitor everything from where a vehicle is located and how fast it travels to when a spark plug misfires.
By October, 7,400 state sedans, light-duty trucks, snowplows and commercial-grade vehicles carried the cellphone-sized trackers. The data began to flow. And over the next several months, an odd trend emerged.
“It looks like speeding is on the increase since GPS installs were completed in October,” Caltrans GPS coordinator Dale Greep said in a May 6 email to Larry Orcutt, the department’s Equipment Division chief.
The number of Caltrans vehicles in the system driven 80 mph or faster for at least six minutes shot up, from an average 46 per day in October to 82 per day in April.
Never miss a local story.
And this despite widespread knowledge that the vehicles were monitored and “GPS TRACKING DEVICE INSTALLED IN THIS VEHICLE” stickers on the driver’s-side window.
Caltrans spokesman Matt Rocco said the department hasn’t looked closely at the speeding numbers, which involve a small percentage of its fleet. It’s not clear whether the drivers are the same from one month to the next.
“A bunch of different factors play into this,” he said, and as the department gathers more data, the causes are likely to become apparent.
Caltrans says that it discourages speeding and, when the situation merits, counsels and disciplines employees who drive the state’s property too fast.
But internal records and emails obtained by The Sacramento Bee via a Public Records Act request show that the department has been slow to activate a feature of the system that identifies who is driving Caltrans vehicles. Instead, the department has continued to largely rely on paper logs manually entered into an older computer system.
Caltrans says that clamping down on speeding was never the main objective.
“The GPS program was launched to effectively manage our fleet by identifying non-essential or low usage equipment,” Rocco said in an email. “The primary focus is not to monitor employees.”
The department is using the paper logs to identify which vehicles employees drive, Rocco said, until the majority of its employees can use the electronic identification system when they drive a Caltrans car or truck.
Bruce Blanning, executive director of the engineers’ union that represents some 13,000 Caltrans employees, downplayed the significance of the data lapse. Even though the system doesn’t yet identify all drivers, he said, “finding out who a driver is on a particular day, that’s very easy.”
4,964 Caltrans light-duty trucks with GPS tracking
When Caltrans rolled out the system last year, officials emphasized the NetworkFleet system would enhance savings and save money. The department has spent $3.6 million on equipment. It pays the vendor, Verizon, another $2.3 million annually to collect and process the data.
Employees would be safer, officials said, because the NetworkFleet could locate vehicles that break down or crash in remote areas. Maintenance costs would fall because the system could catch minor mechanical irregularities before they became major problems. Operating expenses would drop, too, because the department would better manage the entire fleet by, for example, rotating low-use and high-use vehicles.
Caltrans reported that its 12-month fuel expenses dropped 18 percent to $12.8 million from July 2014, when it began installing the devices, to June of this year. But officials said it’s not clear how much of that can be attributed to the system, because average fuel prices also fell significantly during that time.
1,776 Caltrans cars with GPS tracking
Caltrans officials also say that some of the NetworkFleet data are suspect, although it’s likely a very small percentage. A temporary loss of signal, driving through a canyon, interference when near an airport or onboard speed sensor conflicts with satellite tracking can all trigger false speed readings, Rocco said.
In one instance, the system flagged a truck for speeding 108 mph for 10 minutes. Caltrans quickly realized the alert was incorrect. The truck captured by NetworkFleet can’t travel that fast, and the distance covered, according to the report, was less than a half-mile.
“We are working with the vendor to resolve any outstanding issues,” Rocco said. “We are confident that the inaccurate data is a small subset of the GPS data.”
Athough Blanning said he expects the department will “iron out” the technical glitches, he said the union would challenge the NetworkFleet data’s reliability if used to punish an employee.
“It could be a problem if (the data) is used to discipline someone, if it costs one of our members money or their job,” Blanning said. “(Caltrans) would have to prove in a hearing what happened. It could be challenged just like a radar gun reading.”
733 Caltrans heavy-duty trucks with GPS tracking
Once NetworkFleet replaces the old paper-based logging system, Caltrans estimates that alone will save $500,000 annually in form-writing and data-entry costs.
First it has to get employees to use electronic fobs that, when touched to a sensor mounted in networked vehicles, identify the driver.
A sampling of several hundred speeding reports reviewed by The Bee shows that in most instances the operator was listed as “UNKNOWN.” The redacted records indicate that non-union managers used the fobs and were identified by name in the reports.
The department didn’t begin issuing the fobs until this year, according to the Caltrans documents. Internal email exchanges indicate that eight months after the department finished installing NetworkFleet that basic policies for deploying and using the $10 fobs were unresolved.
In a May 30 email to Orcutt, Caltrans manager Cheryl Taylor said she wanted to know how the fob program would be implemented, whether employees, programs or districts would be responsible for the fobs once issued, and how they would work with vehicles driven by more than one employee.
“I would like another conference call to discuss these issues,” Taylor wrote.
The engineers’ union also was concerned about department policies. While union leaders agreed Caltrans had the right to monitor its vehicles and counsel or discipline employees who break the speed limit, they were concerned the information would be misinterpreted or become widely distributed and violate employee confidentiality rules.
“We didn’t want it broadcast all over the district,” Blanning said.
The two sides eventually agreed that network information about driving speeds of 80 mph or faster would go to higher-level Caltrans supervisors for investigation. Then, if necessary, they would dispatch lower-level managers to counsel the employee.
“(The issue) seems to have straightened itself out,” Blanning said. “Now we’ll wait and see if our members have problems.”
Charla Griffy-Brown, a Pepperdine University professor of information systems and technology management, said the union’s caution isn’t surprising.
“Digital tracking feels a little more invasive,” she said, “whether it is or not.”
New technology tends to create tension in the workplace, Griffy-Brown said, and Caltrans’ ability to persuade employees to comply with the NetworkFleet identification system will determine its success.
“There are a million different ways technology implementation can be sabotaged,” she said. “Managers on the front end have to help people understand how it can help them, or the system won’t work.”