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NTSB Chair Hersman: standards for entry into truck, bus industry set too low

NTSB Chairman Deborah Hersman chats with truckers at the Mid-America Trucking Show. (The Trucker: DOROTHY COX)

By LYNDON FINNEY
The Trucker Staff

6/10/2011

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — The chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board believes to get into the motor coach or motor carrier business you need to do more than be able to check a box.

What’s more, says Deborah Hersman, the ease with which a motor coach or motor carrier company can receive operating authority doesn’t sit well with NTSB officials.

“The safety board has long been concerned because those barriers to entry are so low you do have a lot of problems with new entrants. Those are going to be the ones who have the most risky behavior,” Hersman told The Trucker during an interview that took place April 1 during the Mid-America Trucking Show. Not only was it the 44th anniversary of the NTSB, but Hersman’s visit also came amidst a controversy fueled by several recent motor coach accidents.

“You’re obviously a follower of the industry and are aware of many of these sad stories that we’ve seen in recent motor coach accidents,” she told an interviewer. “Drivers who were either illegal as far as their operating status — and when I say that I don’t mean here in the U.S. illegally — but illegal because they didn’t possess a valid license or illegal because they are violating Hours of Service … . In this last incident in the Bronx the driver had not filled out his logbook for three days before the accident.”

Hersman acknowledged the Herculean task facing the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, which oversees the motor carrier and motor coach industry.

“The FMCSA and the state agencies that are responsible for overseeing truck and bus operations really have their work cut out for them,” she said. “The industry is much, much larger than any of the other transportation modes that are responsible for being overseen. When you look at the railroad industry, you have the Federal Railroad Administration overseeing a handful of operators: Class One operators are less than 10 in the United States. The barriers to entry for a railroad or an airline are very high. You have to put up an awful lot of capital; you have to invest in your safety structure. The barriers for entry on the truck and bus side are very low. A couple of hundred dollars for operating authority, you have to make a showing that you can get the insurance, but you can lease a vehicle. The barriers for entry are not that high on the motor carrier side yet we have millions of commercial drivers who have to be overseen and we have hundreds of thousands of different companies. We would like to see better screening of new entrants.”

Hersman drew a comparison to the aviation industry.

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“In order to get simple operating authority, you have to make a very strong showing right up front. You get your safety inspection up front, you have to demonstrate you have the people, the equipment, the oversight systems, the maintenance facilities,” she said. “On the motor carrier side, you can get operating authority and you might not get audited for 18 months. We could have carriers going out of business within 18 months. So I do think FMCSA is working very hard to get in front of this. I think they have tried to address the reincarnated carriers and the chameleon carriers that change, but we know they miss them.”

FMCSA Administrator Anne Ferro testified on Capitol Hill March 30 that FMCSA had caught a number of potential reincarnated companies.

“They may not permit those carriers to come into the system, but they are going to try another way,” Hersman said. “They are going to put it under another name; they are going to put it under a different address. We have situations where we have 50 companies registered at the same post office box. What is going on there and how do we oversee those carriers?”

Conducting inspections on motor coaches is a lot more difficult than conducting an inspection on a commercial truck, Hersman acknowledged, noting an obvious disparity.

Federal law prevents officials from stopping a motor coach on the roadside.

“I certainly understand not inconveniencing passengers and putting them in an unsafe position at the roadside, but especially when we have curbside operators who don’t have terminals it makes it very difficult to conduct inspections,” she said. “We had a situation in this accident in the Bronx where they were coming from Chinatown in New York City. You can’t conduct an inspection there. They are only parked on the side of the road on the curb in an urban environment for a few minutes at most. And then they are going to a casino in Connecticut so we’re dealing with multiple jurisdictions in being able to do those inspections. We need the inspectors to be able to take a look at these buses so they can determine if they are safe and not put the passengers in an unsafe situation, but we have to make sure these buses are safe. We’re seeing indicators in some situations they are not.”

In the wide ranging interview, Hersman als

• Applauded the recently released fatality data that showed a reduction in deaths despite an increase in miles traveled. “The overall number is quite an accomplishment for society. I think everyone can take credit for that a little bit. We saw reductions not just in passenger car fatalities, but also in fatalities involving commercial vehicles. I think the work everyone is doing is commendable. We talk about in our investigations the man, the machine and the environment and I think we’ve seen a lot of improvements in all of those things.”

• Said zero fatalities should be the ultimate goal. “We always have to aim high and we have to have good goals to strive for and I think zero is the right number to strive for. A lot of people say ‘oh, you can’t do that, there’s always going to be problems,’ but do you know there are years that go by in commercial aviation where we have zero fatalities and probably 20 years ago, people would have said, ‘you’re not going to get that, you’re always going to have some accidents? You’re going to have some equipment problems, or you’re going to have some human who makes an error.’ ”

• Said Congress got it right when it created the NTSB with no rulemaking authority. “I like to think of us as the safety conscience and a safety compass of the industry. We can point the industry in the right direction. You are absolutely right, we don’t have any teeth and we can’t make anyone do anything. But over the course of our history, we’ve issued more than 13,000 recommendations and over 80 percent of our recommendations have been accomplished or been agreed to in a positive way. You say what about the other 20 and my response is, I’d like to see 100 percent of what we recommend accomplished, but if we got 100 percent of compliance, then my sense is that we wouldn’t be asking for things that were hard enough. We need to be the rabbit out in front of the greyhound in giving people something to chase and say, ‘here’s where you can do better, here’s where you can reach out to stretch them a bit.’ Sometimes we make recommendations that might be before their time. They might be a little ahead of where people are ready to be. But that’s OK because we want to give people some goals and so I think Congress had it about right. I think if we had the rulemaking authority or the ability to require, we’d be just like the regulators and we know right now they deal with cost benefit analysis … they have to deal with a lot of things that constrains them. We’re not constrained. We can focus on safety and raise the bar.”

Lyndon Finney of The Trucker staff can be reached to comment on this article at editor@thetrucker.com.

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