Advance warning

Truck safety is back as a major topic of conversation in Washington. It might pay to do some eavesdropping.Everyone has an opinion on how to improve truck safety, but some opinions count more than others, especially if they come from someone high up in the federal agency most responsible for regulating the industry. And while opinions are a long way from regulations, you should pay more than a little

Truck safety is back as a major topic of conversation in Washington. It might pay to do some eavesdropping.

Everyone has an opinion on how to improve truck safety, but some opinions count more than others, especially if they come from someone high up in the federal agency most responsible for regulating the industry. And while opinions are a long way from regulations, you should pay more than a little attention when the Inspector General of the Dept. of Transportation (DOT) begins talking about his views on reducing truck accidents.

Late last month, DOT's Ken Mead testified before a congressional subcommittee on a proposal to create a super safety agency that would take responsibility for all forms of surface transportation. The inspector general's testimony also included a number of comments on truck safety regulations. So regardless of whether you favor or oppose the mega-safety watchdog concept, you might want to take a good look at his comments. They offer a bit of an advance warning on what the trucking industry might expect in the way of federal safety regulatory efforts over the next few years.

Most of the ideas raised by Mead are not totally new, but rather extend or toughen existing rules. For example, he would like to see responsibility for annual truck inspections moved from fleets to independent organizations. While mechanisms already exist for shutting down unsafe fleets and canceling commercial drivers' licenses for safety reasons, Mead would like to see more vigorous enforcement efforts to remove such high safety risks from the road. And he would like to upgrade driver pre-trip inspection rules to make them similar to those now covering airline pilots, holding drivers accountable for ignoring safety-related problems with their equipment.

One concept floated before the committee is sure to raise fleet hackles. Mead would tie revision of the hours-of-service rules to electronic monitoring of driver and vehicle operations. It also appears that he would like to see some kind of wireless communications to provide remote access to those monitoring devices. But that may just be his imprecise use of the term "satellite communications" to mean onboard electronics. Even without the expensive wireless component, fleets speaking individually and through trade groups such as the American Trucking Assns. have been adamant in their resistance to any type of mandated monitoring that goes beyond current log requirements.

Another issue raised by Mead could also create headaches for fleets, although in this case many might secretly welcome such a move. He would like to see a national 60-mph speed limit for trucks. Drivers, who only in the last four years have been "liberated" from the 55-mph limit, are sure to resent any attempt to slow them down again, and fleet managers will find themselves caught in the crossfire. Still, I have to think that many fleets will find driver dissatisfaction is a small price to pay for better fuel economy and more rational driver expectations when it comes to horsepower.

Obviously, there's no guarantee that any of Mead's comments will ever be translated into official DOT proposals, no less make it into the federal rule books. And, of course, just because these ideas are being raised by a DOT official doesn't automatically make them all bad. In fact, a number of them would be welcomed by anyone who has a serious interest in improving truck safety. But like them or not, you've been given some advance warning.

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