Senator takes aim at commercial vehicle safety programs
“My bill would require drivers to receive more training before they are granted a license to drive a truck or bus — and it would require more companies to demonstrate that their drivers understand the rules before they hit the road,” Sen. Frank Lautenberg said, convening a Senate Commerce subcommittee hearing on the reauthorization of motor carrier safety programs.
The Trucker Staff
WASHINGTON — An influential senator said Thursday he’ll introduce legislation to give the federal government the tools it needs “to kick unsafe drivers and carriers out of the industry.”
Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg, D.-N.J., cited a recent surge in bus accidents and the annual toll of truck-related highway fatalities, and said Congress should do more to help the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration protect Americans on the roadways.
“My bill would require drivers to receive more training before they are granted a license to drive a truck or bus — and it would require more companies to demonstrate that their drivers understand the rules before they hit the road,” Lautenberg said, convening a Senate Commerce subcommittee hearing on the reauthorization of motor carrier safety programs. “In addition, this bill would keep unsafe drivers from getting behind the wheel by requiring trucks and buses to have electronic on-board recorders (EOBRs) to better monitor and manage the amount of time drivers spend on duty. If drivers are not fully trained, qualified and alert, they should not be on the road.”
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The legislation — expected to be included in the larger surface transportation reauthorization package currently being developed in both the Senate and the House — also would focus on identifying and removing ‘reincarnated’ or ‘chameleon’ carriers, or those that run afoul of safety regulators yet resume unsafe operations under new names.
During witness testimony, the industry’s top regulator noted how truck safety has improved despite limited government resources, while trucking interests and safety advocates debated the need for changes in Hours of Service rules, electronic logs, truck size and weight and regulation of shippers and receivers.
FMCSA Administrator Anne Ferro noted the substantial improvement in truck and bus safety since Congress established her agency 11 years ago.
“By design, FMCSA is not about Washington. It’s about the front lines in our states and hometown communities where the overwhelming majority of our employees are boots to the ground in partnership with state and local law enforcement — because that’s where the commercial vehicle activity is,” Ferro said.
Still, commercial vehicle accidents cost the economy more than $60 billion each year, Ferro added. Yet her agency has only 1,100 employees to oversee more than 500,000 trucking companies and 5 million drivers.
FMCSA needs to focus on “the bad actors,” those carriers whose safety scores show them to be “high risk” — the 10 percent that are involved in more than 40 percent of serious crashes, Ferro explained.
She asked Congress to support the agency’s requests for additional technical assistance to improve the agency’s safety management tools, to close “statutory gaps” through which unsafe operators evade federal regulation, and to improve state government access to FMCSA grant programs.
Dan England, chairman and president of C.R. England Inc. and vice chairman of the American Trucking Associations, touted several ATA-suggested initiatives to improve highway safety.
Specifically, England urged Congress to raise the bar for new companies entering the industry by requiring them to successfully complete training and an examination before being permitted to operate — and to undergo an initial safety audit within six months of commencing operations, not 18 months, which is the current standard.
In addition, England called for improvements to the agency’s new safety monitoring and measurement system, Compliance Safety Accountability (CSA).
“ATA has supported CSA from the outset,” England said. “However, the integrity of the system is hindered by underlying data quality and methodology issues. As such, its use as a system to reliably identify unsafe carriers and drivers is somewhat limited.”
England also urged Congress to look beyond the current enforcement and compliance system as the primary means to improve truck safety. Specifically, he pointed to the need to create a national system to provide employers with timely notification of drivers’ moving violations and a drug and alcohol test result clearinghouse, as tools to help “leverage the size and power of the industry to achieve the mutual objective of improving highway safety.”
And England reiterated ATA’s support of a federal mandate for electronic logging devices, but stressed that such a mandate should be coupled with retention of the current HOS rules. He pointed out that the industry’s safety record has improved dramatically since the current regulations were put in place in 2004, and that given these improvements the most appropriate course of action is to improve compliance with the current rules, rather than change them by mandating electronic logging devices.
Finally, in addition to ATA’s call for to trucks to be built with a 65 mph speed limit and for a national posted speed limit of 65 mph for all vehicles, England stressed the need to broaden the focus of truck safety initiatives to get at the most prevalent causes of truck crashes.
“The single largest factor impacting truck safety is the behavior of other motorists,” said England. “Hence, focusing almost exclusively on motor carriers and their drivers directs attention to a small part of the equation.”
Joe Rajkovacz, director of regulatory affairs for the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, likewise emphasized that truckers are not at fault in the majority of commercial vehicle-related accidents — and, similarly, that trucking’s safety gains are about the folks behind the wheel.
“Many take credit for these dramatic improvements — unfortunately, we rarely hear credit given to those mostly responsible: the men and women who actually drive trucks,” he said. “We think today’s tremendous safety achievements can be improved upon, but not if safety is viewed through the same prism of only applying more screws to drivers out on the road.”
And while small business truckers “dominate the industry,” their business model is under assault from larger carriers “that cleverly craft and support initiatives … under well-sounding but false safety and environmental arguments,” Rajkovacz said.
Rather than expensive technology mandates, OOIDA supports driver training standards as the most effective and least costly way to improve safety, he added.
Though he agreed with ATA’s position that HOS should not be changed, OOIDA contends the more critical issue is the amount of time drivers are detained at loading docks.
Rajkovacz rejected the ATA contention that the matter should be left to the marketplace and not be subject to regulatory interference.
“Yet they think the government mandating a wide array of onboard safety systems — from EOBRs to speed limiters — is necessary ‘to level the playing field,’” Rajkovacz said. “Where’s the logic in that?”
Regulation of shippers and receivers is critical because small business truckers don’t have the leverage to renegotiate contracts with the large corporations they serve, he explained.
“Right now the supply chain is getting something for nothing,” Rajkovacz said. “The free market emphasis is on the word ‘free’ when it comes to a driver’s time. Why is it the driver’s responsibility to eat that time?”
Representing Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, Vice President Jacqueline Gillan said the reauthorization presents “a unique opportunity” to improve on recent safety achievements — although her testimony suggested that reduced truck-related fatalities is more closely linked to reduced trucking activity during the recession than to industry safety initiatives.
Gillan expressed support for a current Senate bill to limit truck size and weight — sponsored by Lautenberg — and for an EOBR mandate sponsored by Sen. Mark Pryor, D.-Ark., who also was on the subcommittee. The organization, which actively opposed the Bush administration’s increase in HOS, supports FMCSA’s proposed reduction in driving time.
“Keeping unsafe motor carriers and unsafe drivers off of our highways is essential to everyone’s safety,” Gillan said. “FMCSA has fallen short in meeting both of these goals.”
Kevin Jones of The Trucker staff can be reached for comment at email@example.com.
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