FMCSA'S Julie Cirillo talks about safety Whether you agree with her or not, Julie Anna Cirillo, acting assistant administrator for the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA), is nothing if not honest. A 22-year trucking industry veteran, Cirillo has been described by insiders as "tough, very bright, very decisive and somewhat outspoken" - traits that have come in handy in dealing with contentious undertakings such as hours-of-service (HOS) reform and the creation of the FMCSA. Cirillo sat down with FLEET OWNER senior editor Sean Kilcarr to offer her thoughts on how safety is being handled by the trucking industry.
FO: Where are we in terms of safety?
Cirillo: I think that most of the industry - owner-operators, carriers and company drivers - is safety conscious and tries to do the right thing. You often come across carriers that are honoring drivers with 2-million accident-free miles, for example. That doesn't happen because someone thinks it's a good idea; it happens as part of a process that encourages safety.
Having said that, I think we have two things working against the industry. The first is the number of truckers who do not behave responsibly: They drive with poor equipment, run when tired, speed and tailgate. The second relates to public perception; everyone who drives has come in contact with one of those poor performers.
Though the American public is fairly neutral about highway safety, there are some things that do get their attention. The public is engaged when it comes to trucks; they don't like them.
No matter what you want to tell people about trucks, the only thing they remember is their last bad experience. That's when an 80,000-lb. vehicle came right up on their bumper and honked the horn.
The majority of the trucking industry, which tries very hard to do the right thing - some do exceptional work - needs to understand that. They also need to help change their image and put pressure on those poor performers, because right now those poor performers are painting the industry picture. We need to bring back the concept that if you're driving, you can always depend on a trucker to help you, not run you off the road.
FO: In a way, you're talking about resurrecting the image of truckers as "Knights of the Road." Do truckers need to encourage the rebirth of that concept?
Cirillo: I think so. We certainly hold commercial drivers to higher safety standards than other drivers, what with CDL requirements, physical qualifications, and drug and alcohol testing. Whenever I talk to drivers, I challenge them to use peer pressure on the road, so the bad actors who aren't behaving appropriately begin to behave appropriately.
The other part of the problem is that we now have just-in-time (JIT) delivery and electronic commerce, all of which generate truck traffic. Yet we still haven't addressed the issue of how to pay truck drivers.
Since most drivers are paid by the mile, if they hit traffic congestion, they have to make that time up, which leads to speeding. If they stop to fix a piece of equipment, they're delayed. Again, they try to make up the time by speeding.
We need to come to grips with the fact that the people who carry the majority of the economy's freight are basically sweatshop workers. They work very hard, for long hours and little pay. By itself, this isn't a safety issue. But I think it affects a number of safety issues. If we have a driver shortage, there may be a tendency to hire drivers who are less qualified and less experienced.
FO: Where is the shipper's role in all of this? Many fleets say that shippers are paying them next to nothing to move their freight.
Cirillo: If nobody is willing to carry the goods that a shipper wants to ship in three hours over a distance that takes six hours to drive, then the shipper will have to change. Why does a driver have to bear the burden of JIT delivery because someone doesn't want to warehouse the goods?
Since a large percentage of trucking companies won't take business they can't do safely, and since responsible shippers want to have responsible carriers, safety should be good business. However, in trucking, everybody blames everybody else. The small carriers blame the big carriers; the big carriers blame the small carriers; the drivers blame the carriers; everybody blames the shippers; and the shippers blame the carriers.
We allow this to happen because no one ends up paying for inefficiencies. When a truck waits at the dock for two or three hours, who bears the brunt of it? The driver. The shipper is not paying anything and the carrier is not paying anything. It's the driver who's sitting there doing nothing. It is totally unproductive time. All because the shipper doesn't want to schedule things in and out in an efficient fashion.
FO: Are you saying that better safety comes from better logistics management?
Cirillo: Absolutely. You can't have these big chunks of downtime that fall totally on the driver and expect to have a safe and efficient system. The driver is sitting there waiting at the deck. And he's getting tired. I don't care how many times he's jumping in and out of his bunk - that's nonsense.
FO: Let's turn to the new HOS proposal. A lot of technology was included. Do you think that will really help in terms of safety?
Cirillo: We're totally committed to technology. We believe that technology will be a key to improving safety. We will reach the [DOT] Secretary's goal through technology. There's a whole spectrum of things, including non-intrusive fatigue detection devices, which would eliminate HOS rules because you could detect when drivers are tired.
There are also collision avoidance systems, rollover detection systems, side incursion systems to get rid of blind spots, and adaptive cruise control to adjust speed. All of these things give information to the driver and help control the vehicle so there's less risk of an accident.
To really affect fatality levels, you have to prevent accidents. We're very aggressively pursuing that with the Intelligent Vehicle Initiative. We're also working hard to increase our research budgets so we can be more futuristic. We'd like to develop an inexpensive, unobtrusive fatigue detection device.
FO: That would certainly benefit drivers.
Cirillo: Yes. Their lives are at risk. Truck driving is the most hazardous occupation in the U.S.
FO: If HOS reform bogs down, what other avenues would FMCSA focus on to improve highway safety?
Cirillo: If the Senate provision prevails [cutting off funding for HOS], which I think would be a terrible mistake, I'm not sure that we would do anything on HOS other than increase enforcement. We could consider whether or not to engage the Labor Dept. in a discussion about a change in pay structure for truck drivers. But that would be a policy decision for the next Administration.
FO: What about the future?
Cirillo: I think there needs to be a lot of work in the industry. Let's assume the economy just sustains itself and doesn't grow. We're not going to build a lot of roads; and even if we did, it would take years to get them finished. We're all going to operate with more traffic on the existing system.
The industry has not been very creative in trying to solve the driver shortage problem. There are exceptions. U.S. Xpress Enterprises Inc., for example, is starting to buy trucks equipped with automatic transmissions to attract female drivers.
But you have to able to attract people who can move your goods safely. If you start compromising driver training and driver qualifications, you'll end up losing loads because these drivers will make more mistakes.
The other thing - and the industry still doesn't get this - is that the public doesn't like trucks. They think trucks are unsafe because they've had a bad experience with a single trucker. Eventually, that will come back to haunt the trucking industry.