Back to school: Yet another example of performance-based initiative.

The Federal Highway Administration's efforts to change from an enforcement agency to one that is interested in partnering with fleets and becoming a "safety" organization is proceeding, albeit with some fits and starts.International Highway Transportation Safety Week, a revamped version of the old Roadcheck, was completed during the first week of June and is being labeled a success by its proponents.

The Federal Highway Administration's efforts to change from an enforcement agency to one that is interested in partnering with fleets and becoming a "safety" organization is proceeding, albeit with some fits and starts.

International Highway Transportation Safety Week, a revamped version of the old Roadcheck, was completed during the first week of June and is being labeled a success by its proponents. However, the true efficacy of this event, as well as of other initiatives that favor education and awareness over old-style enforcement and punishment, may not be known for several years.

Although the deadline for state inspection data to reach the Office of Motor Carriers (OMC) is August 15, national co-chair Phil Hanley of OMC says: "We think we'll have better results than last year." Hanley notes that last year's three-pronged approach -- education/public awareness, enforcement, and driver appreciation -- was used again. However, he says that this year there were more participants and the program received more attention from the Dept. of Transportation. "States also gave it more attention," says Hanley.

Last year's figures show that of 17,079 vehicles given Level 1 inspections by state and federal inspectors, 5,341 (about 31%) were taken out of service. About 6% of drivers (1,031) were taken out of service.

The top reasons for failure were brakes and lamps on the equipment side, and logbook and breaking local traffic laws on the driver side.

Finding statistical trends is tough, because this was only the second official International Highway Transportation Safety Week. Supporters are quick to point out that the thrust has changed significantly since the old Roadcheck days, and thus comparing results from the two programs is unfair.

Looking back at the past several years, however, it's clear that the number of trucks taken out of service after Level 1 inspections during Roadcheck and during Safety Week has stayed the same -- about 30%,

Individual states report a flattening, too. Maj. Ray Cotton, commander of Motor Carrier and Automotive Safety Operations for the Maryland State Police, was in charge of his state's Safety Week efforts. He says that for the five years he's been involved in safety, Maryland's out-of-service figures have stayed near the 35% level, slightly higher than the nationwide Safety Week figure.

Can OMC and the states ever hope for better than the 30-35% figure that is obtained using performance-based tools such as Safety Week?

Observers say that as more fleets learn about Safety Week and discover the advantages of compliance, inspectors will naturally dig deeper, spending less time on fleets that have excellent safety records. Although it doesn't do much for statistics, this method works wonders for safety by allowing inspectors to concentrate on taking the most dangerous vehicles out of service.

Officials acknowledge, however, that some fleets simply stay off the road for the 72-hour inspection period to lower their chances of an inspection that they know they can't pass. While this may help Safety Week statistics, it's bad for overall highway safety.

While OMC is obviously pinning some hopes on Safety Week to build awareness of its new emphasis on safety, it is also proceeding with several other initiatives that emphasize safety over enforcement.

One bold initiative by FHWA is a proposal to modify the way in which carriers are judged against safety standards. Dubbed the Safety Fitness Rating Methodology, or SFRM, the plan has been controversial from day one. Now open for public comment, it would set an accident standard of 1.6 accidents per million miles driven. If a carrier had more accidents than that, it would be considered unsafe. Carriers in urban areas would have a higher accident threshold -- 2.1 accidents per million miles.

FHWA's proposal does not include any conditional ratings, and puts the onus of safety squarely on the carriers themselves.

The Clinton Administration has put a great deal of effort into pushing performance-based regulation. But whether it works for trucking -- with its unique issues and history -- as well as it does for other industries remains to be seen.

The success of this method is at least partially contingent on whether the agency rank and file buy into the idea. It's no secret that some OMC staffers believe that performance-based regulation is a dream that is more appropriate for an idealized world, rather than today's sometimes unethical business environment.

The success of performance-based regulation also depends on whether the industry wants to be treated maturely and take responsibility for its actions, or simply prefers the enforcement and punishment methods with which they have become so comfortable.

Congress giveth and Congress taketh away. Sen. Herb Kohl (D-Wis.) has introduced legislation that raises the meal deductions for truck drivers to 80% from the current 50%. Bill Archer, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, has included a phased-in deduction for meals as part of the budget agreement. The House bill would also increase the excise tax on new vehicles. "We estimate that the average truck driver will get back $750 to $2,000 annually," says Lana Batts, president of the Truckload Carriers Assn. Prior to 1987, transportation workers subject to federal limitations on hours of service were allowed up to a 100% deduction.

Catch your breath The Clinton Administration last month confirmed plans to go ahead with tough new pollution rules that would reduce smog and particulate emissions produced, in part, from vehicle emissions. For ozone, EPA will mandate a reduction from 0.12 to 0.08 parts per million cubic feet, while for particulates, the current 10-micron diameter standard drops to 2.5 microns. The agency will formally adopt the new rules July 19.

Lighten up! New rules requiring reflective material be mounted on the back of truck tractors similar to that required on the rear of trailers take effect July 1. The rules are designed to increase the nighttime visibility of trucks.

Worth the weight? Three years after promising the most comprehensive examination of truck sizes and weights in 30 years, the FHWA has weighed in with a 2-in.-thick dud. That according to trucking officials who had hoped the document would address productivity issues and their impact on the environment, fuel, and congestion. Congress will be looking into truck sizes and weights as part of its highway bill this fall. The draft report is likely to go through further iterations before then.

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