FMCSA safety chief says agency unsure of how to handle crash accountability

April 27, 2015
Also, a bill to hide CSA scores from the public excludes private fleets among other regulatory updates

CINCINNATI. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s (FMCSA) chief safety officer acknowledged that there is some data to indicate that using previous crashes as an indicator of future crashes is not necessarily statistically true, but “we don’t know how to manage this. That’s what we’re looking at.”

Jack Van Steenburg told the audience at the National Private Truck Council’s 2015 Annual Education Management Conference and Exhibition at a Monday session that there is some data that indicates that truck fleets involved in crashes that are not preventable are not necessarily at greater risk of a future crash. That correlates with industry cries to assign crash accountability to the CSA scoring system by not penalizing fleets involved in crashes beyond their control.

To date, FMCSA has declined to address this issue, saying that assigning accountability is expensive and would not significantly improve reporting.

Van Steenburg also said FMCSA would be conducting a pilot program on split sleeper berth times later this year. Also, the hours-of-service restart study is set to begin later this month, he said. FMCSA has lined up 239 drivers to participate (it said 207 were needed for statistical accuracy) and Van Steenburg also said that process has been vetted by four independent auditors in addition to the Office of the Inspector General.

“The research isn’t biased towards us, it isn’t biased towards the industry,” he said. “It is what it is going to be and then we’ll make decisions.”

Van Steenburg, as well as Rick Schweitzer, general counsel for the National Private Truck Council in an earlier session, updated attendees on the status of several potential rules.

CSA is also an important issue to NPTC members, as they too have been affected by public display of safety scores.

Pennsylvania Rep. Lou Barletta has introduced H.R. 1371, the Safer Trucks and Buses Act of 2015. The bill would order FMCSA to stop publishing individual motor carriers’ scores under the Compliance, Safety, Accountability (CSA) program until the agency has improved the data.

Among the specific improvements, the bill seeks to ensure that CSA:

  • uses only safety data and scores determined to be predictive of motor carrier accidents;
  • does not unfairly harm small motor carriers; and
  • generates safety data that allows individual carriers and their safety scores to be effectively compared.

While that is welcome relief to the trucking industry as a whole, what Schweitzer told the private fleet representatives gathered may not be: the bill does not pertain to private fleets.

“It uses a definition of motor carrier that does not include private carriers,” he said. “I’ve been in touch with Congressman Barletta and I don’t think this was an intentional omission and I am hopeful this will be addressed.”

The bill would also direct FMCSA to use only “at-fault crashes” in its scoring.

On the issue of hours-of-service, Schweitzer said it is possible that a permanent fix may be included in the next long-term highway bill, after the FMCSA’s 34-hour restart study is completed.

As to that long-overdue highway bill, the current short-term extension expires May 31. Schweitzer said he doubted a long-term bill will be done by that point and another extension is likely.

“No one in Congress has the stomach to raise fuel taxes, which I find amazing since it is the easiest way [to fix funding],” he said.

The lack of a long-term bill is also hampering the Dept. of Transportation’s efforts to improve highway safety and set clear regulatory direction.

“That’s where we can get relief on CSA, that’s where we can get relief on hours of service,” Schweitzer said.

For his part, Van Steenburg said CSA targets high-risk carriers and that 83% of those carriers that were sent letters by FMCSA then showed improvements in their safety profiles.

Truck size and weight reform, though, will likely have to wait, according to Schweitzer, who said he was at a dinner function recently with Rep. Bill Schuster (R-PA), who heads up the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, and Schuster said not to expect reform this year.

“On the weight issue, Schuster says he absolutely supports us, but it is the most contentious issues because of resistance from the railroads, safety groups, and even the Administration, so for that reason, it is unlikely [any reform] will be included in bills this year,” Schweitzer told the audience.

NPTC supports 97,000 lbs. vehicles equipped with six axles and 33-ft. double trailers.

Both men addressed a number of other regulatory issues facing the industry.

Electronic logs

The electronic logging device rule would include a two-year phase-in after the final rule and would exclude any short-haul driver that does not currently have to file a log book.

“It is expected in September,” Schweitzer said. Van Steenburg said he was “pretty positive” it will be before the end of the year.

“The rulemaking is sitting on my desk, he said. “It got there Friday and I’m going to give it a good read.”

FMCSA’s proposed rule would require use of ELDs within two years of a final rule. Van Steenburg said the final rule will also address HOS supporting documents and concerns about harassment. Those two issues were subjects of litigation, and the harassment issue ultimately scuttled FMCSA’s prior electronic log rule, which was announced in April 2010.

Carrier Safety Fitness Standards

This rule has been at the secretary of transportation’s office since March 2. Schweitzer said his best estimate would be publication in August, “but that date has been pushed back a number of times.”

“This is a rule that is at least five years overdue,” he said. “We don’t think this rule will come, though, until CSA revisions are done.”

Medical card integration

This, Schweitzer said, is a big issue of concern to many private fleets. Just announced last week, the rule would require medical examiners to report all findings from a driver exam – including exams where the driver is found not to be qualified – to the agency by midnight the following day. FMCSA then must electronically transfer that information  to SDLAs.

“They are trying to take the drivers out of this process,” Schweitzer said. “Hopefully, this will be an improvement.”

Beyond compliance

Another initiative FMCSA is undertaking, with support from many in the trucking industry, is this concept of “beyond compliance.” A request for public comment was published last Thursday in the Federal Register and outlines the concept.

Beyond compliance would include voluntary programs implemented by motor carriers that exceed regulatory requirements, and improve the safety of commercial motor vehicles and drivers operating on the Nations’ roadways by reducing the number and severity of crashes,” the notice states.

In essence, Schweitzer related, FMCSA would create some benefit for carriers who implement advanced safety systems such as lane departure warning or collision mitigation technologies, above and beyond what is required by law.

“FMCSA says it’s not proposing specific regulatory relief, but what they are proposing is credits on SMS and ISS scores,” he said. “I think it is incumbent on all of you to [comment]. What can FMCSA give you that will encourage you to adopt advanced safety systems.”

Van Steenburg, though, cautioned that the use of advanced systems might not necessarily mean relief or credit. “I saw one carrier that had speed limiters that had over 700 tickets. Should that carrier get credit for having speed limiters? I’d say no,” he said.

Comments are being accepted until June 22.

A couple of other regulatory initiatives that NPTC is watching closely include the minimum financial responsibility bill that would boost insurance minimums for carriers, speed limiters, entry-level driver training, a diabetes standard, and a drug and alcohol clearinghouse.

The insurance minimum bill, ironically enough, does not specifically impact private fleets, Schweitzer said, although a separate rulemaking was likely in the future. Insurance minimums for for-hire carriers are currently at $750,000.

The speed limited proposal, expected this summer, would cap truck speeds for Class 7-8 vehicles at 65 mph, Schweitzer said.

The driver training rule is another rule that is years in the making. FMCSA has been so vexed by this effort that it has adopted a negotiated rulemaking process – basically asking stakeholders to help craft the rule.

“It’s very difficult to come up with something that is statistically relevant that is better than what we have now,” Schweitzer said, adding that FMCSA is trying to push for a rule before the end of the year.

Van Steenburg said there have been 10 working sessions over the past 2 ½ months regarding the driver training rule and there is hope a rule will be complete before the end of 2015.

FMCSA is also proposing a new diabetes standard that would allow “drivers who are insulin-dependent who have their diabetes under control” to driver commercial vehicles under certain instances,” Schweitzer said. That rule is expected “soon.”

Finally, a drug and alcohol clearinghouse rule is under consideration and FMCSA “hopes to have a final rule out before the end of the year,” according to Schweitzer. Any rule would allow carriers to submit positive results and refusals to a database. Eventually, FMCSA would eliminate inquires to prior employers.

Van Steenburg said he was hopeful a clearinghouse rule would be out this year.

About the Author

Brian Straight | Managing Editor

Brian joined Fleet Owner in May 2008 after spending nearly 14 years as sports editor and then managing editor of several daily newspapers.  He and his staff  won more than two dozen major writing and editing awards. Responsible for editing, editorial production functions and deadlines.

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