FMCSA eyes ‘alternative compliance’ for motor carriers

Oct. 6, 2014
Agency to look into whether carriers should get credit for adopting technologies or advanced safety programs

SAN DIEGO. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration is mulling over the possibility of giving motor carriers regulatory flexibility or other benefits if their safety efforts go beyond minimum requirements, the agency’s chief safety officer said Oct. 5.

Speaking to an American Trucking Assns. Safety Policy Committee at the group’s annual meeting in San Diego, Jack Van Steenburg also told carriers in response to a question that they can forget about the idea that FMCSA might allow carriers to use hair follicle testing instead of urine testing for controlled substances.

On the regulatory flexibility issue, Van Steenburg told the committee that he and Bill Quade, FMCSA’s associate administrator for enforcement and program delivery, are heading up a team to look at what Van Steenburg calls “alternative compliance” – recognizing carriers for steps they take to increase safety that aren’t required by regulation.

Alternative compliance might involve use of safety technologies or perhaps safety management practices – driver health and wellness programs, fatigue management programs or use of the Pre-employment Screening Program – that go beyond what is required.

A broader question, however, is whether fleets should even get credit for such activities, Van Steenburg said, noting that one school of thought is that these are the types of investments carriers should be making anyway. FMCSA is planning to invite public comment in the Federal Register on these questions – whether alternative compliance is appropriate and, if so, what technologies and programs should be recognized for it.

Van Steenburg told the committee that alternative compliance was one of two topics addressed in a recent meeting with ATA Chairman Phil Byrd. Another one was the desire for FMCSA to recognize safe drivers in some way so that drivers could receive praise from the agency for doing the right things and not just punishment for doing wrong. Such recognition would go beyond recognizing ATA’s own programs for recognizing good drivers and would encompass the entire industry.

Regarding hair follicle testing, Van Steenburg said that the Dept. of Health and Human Services (HHS) doesn’t allow it as an alternative to urine testing, and “it’s not going to happen.” Hair testing can detect drug use over a longer period of time than urine testing. But while HHS won’t allow hair testing, it is looking at other methods, including testing saliva, he said.

Van Steenburg’s remarks also addressed FMCSA’s five priorities for the fiscal year, which began Oct. 1. High on the list is completing the rulemaking to mandate electronic logging devices (ELDs). “We believe it’s the right thing to do. Hopefully we will get this done in 2015.”

Another priority is the long-awaited safety fitness determination (SFD) proposed rule, which would convert the Safety Measurement System (SMS) into the basis for an automatic fitness determination rather than just a tool for targeting intervention as it is today under the Compliance, Safety, Accountability (CSA) program.

Van Steenburg said he was notified just last week that the draft proposal is about to come to him for review – probably this week. The draft is “very, very detailed,” he said. As has been promised before, the SFD rule would assign an absolute rating to each carrier, not a relative score as seen today under CSA, he said.

Van Steenburg later told Fleet Owner after he completes his review, the deputy administrator and acting administrator would review the proposed rule before it goes to the Dept. of Transportation’s Office of the Secretary. The proposed rule would then go to the White House Office of Management and Budget for a review before being published in the Federal Register.

Another priority for 2015 also relates to CSA – rolling out what Van Steenburg calls “CSA Phase III.” This involves providing a full package of intervention suites so that all states can do off-site reviews as has been the CSA plan for the beginning. In March, DOT’s inspector general faulted FMCSA for slow progress on adopting CSA interventions. The DOT IG found that only 10 states had fully implemented the intervention process and that FMCSA wasn’t planning to release the software until May 2015.

Other priorities for 2015 include implementing updates to the Unified Registration System that were directed by the last highway act, MAP-21, and completing inspection modernization.

Among the questions for Van Steenburg was one regarding the requirement that drivers’ medical exams be conducted by certified medical examiners. He repeated FMCSA’s recent statement that the regulations make it clear that the certified examiner must be the person who conducts the physical.

Van Steenburg acknowledged, however, that when a patient goes to the doctor it’s common for elements of the exam – logging weight, checking blood pressure, taking blood samples, etc. – to be performed by someone other than the doctor. So perhaps some guidance is needed, he said. 

But FMCSA isn’t prepared today to address hypothetical situations. “Then we get into ‘what ifs.’ We don’t want to get into ‘what ifs’.”

About the Author

Avery Vise | Contributing editor

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