Commercial motor vehicle safety "hot line" may create more problems than it solves
The Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century (TEA-21 in Washington-speak), signed into law by President Clinton on June 10, provides program direction on highway issues for the next five years. While many of its provisions will have a positive impact on trucking, some may actually create more problems than they solve.
For example, Section 4017 requires the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) to establish a toll-free "hot line" that can be used for reporting potential safety violations. Originally proposed by groups representing owner-operators, this provision was intended to provide a means of reporting unsafe practices by motor carriers to government authorities.
Initial versions of the proposed legislation were strongly slanted in favor of drivers, providing protection for any driver giving information to authorities - whether or not the information was accurate. However, other trade associations and safety groups were successful in getting the original language modified so that anyone contacting the DOT regarding unsafe activities related to commercial vehicle transportation would be treated equally.
Final language requires the FHWA to establish a 24-hour-a-day service that anyone can use to report unsafe activities by carriers. The Act provides $250,000 a year to establish and operate the service, which is really not such a lot considering the amounts provided for many other programs and studies.
You don't have to think too far ahead to begin to realize some of the difficulties this program could create if not clearly thought out and managed appropriately. There are over 6-million commercial driver's license holders and approximately 300,000 motor carriers in the United States. If the program receives even a modicum of publicity and support, thousands of calls could be generated daily to the hot line, reporting everything from legitimate safety problems to complaints about how a dispatcher treated someone. Who will monitor these calls? Who will determine whether a call is legitimate and then follow up appropriately?
FHWA will most likely contract out all or part of the service to a private company, which will provide the equipment and technology needed to collect information on a round-the-clock basis. Someone must then determine which situations have sufficient data to warrant an investigation. It seems that the responsibility for follow-up and possible enforcement action would fall to the FHWA. My concern is that this system has the potential to squander valuable resources.
If you talk to people who have managed enforcement programs, you'll find that a good deal of information comes from "interested citizens" reporting what they have seen, heard, or experienced first-hand. While unsolicited information can eventually lead to the removal of unsafe drivers and vehicles from the highways, this is not always the case. Much of the information is useless or incomplete, which means even more time and resources are needed to build a case.
In essence, the type of reporting activity that this program allegedly encourages is already happening every day. Why do we need another federal program to mandate what appears to be the status quo?
There's no doubt that we need to make better use of the enforcement data that's already being collected. And perhaps we even need to develop more productive methods of identifying unsafe drivers and carriers.
Let's focus on real safety issues. Let's target unsafe operators, punish them when necessary, and help them understand their responsibility to operate safely. And if they cannot or will not make the changes necessary to run a safe operation, then it's the responsibility of enforcement agencies to shut them down.
The FHWA needs to take a good, hard look at this hot line provision of TEA-21 and craft a meaningful program that will provide more than just an outlet for complaints.