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Representatives from ATA and Scopelitis Transportation Consulting share their insight into the future of trucking regulations.

Trucking regulations outlook: FMCSA turnovers create challenges

April 16, 2024
Representatives from ATA and Scopelitis Transportation Consulting share their insight into the future of trucking regulations.

In light of the recently finalized Phase 3 of the Clean Trucks Plan by the Environmental Protection Agency, the chatter about speed limiters, and the ever-evolving hours-of-service rules, regulatory change often happens in the trucking industry. But is this change happening too quickly or too slowly?

Representatives from Scopelitis Transportation Consulting and the American Trucking Associations shared their insight at the recent Motive Vision 24 conference in Nashville.

The two shared their thoughts on factors that might influence change within the industry, such as political factors and 2024 being an election year. They also shared their thoughts on specific regulations and their status. But before sweeping changes take place, there are some politics at play, starting with leadership.

Leadership impacts trucking regulations

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration has seen seven administrators in the last six years, Sean Garney, co-director, Scopelitis Transportation Consulting, told conference attendees gathered in a packed room during a breakout session. “We’ve gotten pretty used to dealing with the revolving door that is the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration.”

Each leadership change also comes with its own challenges, and Garney said it’s up to the administrator to decide whether sweeping changes will take place.

“Each time a new administrator comes in, a lot depends on the temperament of that administrator,” Garney explained. “I was speaking a few months ago with a senior FMCSA official talking about a recent transition and asking him, 'Hey, do you think this is going to slow you down, or are you guys pretty well prepared for this?' And his point was it is absolutely about the temperament of the leader coming in. Is that leader willing to provide little deference to longtime staffers? Or are they the type of administrator who really wants to get their hands dirty and really wants to understand all of the decisions?”

See also: FMCSA leader to leave post this month

Another factor to consider about FMCSA leadership is whether the leader is acting or Senate-confirmed.

“If you really want to do the big sexy things, you really need a confirmed leader,” Garney told the group. “Because an acting leader maybe isn't willing to step out quite as far on difficult issues like CSA or speed limiters—things that might have a political element to them.”

A presidential election is also a factor to consider when discussing regulatory changes within the FMCSA.

“When it comes to high-level election changes, sometimes we see a slowdown in the rulemaking process, whether it's a controversial issue or political issue,” Kevin Grove, director of safety and technology policy at ATA, said to the group.

FMCSA’s Compliance, Safety, and Accountability, the administration’s data-driven safety compliance and enforcement program, is a good example of this, Garney said.

“We knew CSA-proposed changes were coming down the pike for years and years, and under Trump, there were several acting administrators who I spoke to, and most of the folks were like, 'Yeah, this is pretty well baked. We know what we're going to do,’” Garney explained. “But they couldn't really pull the trigger ... And to do so under an acting administrator is just a little bit riskier because you don't necessarily have the full faith of the Senate.”

Changes with CSA

For years, carriers have questioned the accuracy of FMCSA’s CSA program, and there could be some much-needed changes coming down the pipeline—but when and what?

FMCSA has already proposed changes to its Safety Management System, a system that uses data from crash reports, roadside inspections, and investigations to identify whether motor carriers pose a safety risk. These proposed changes include: reorganized and updated safety categories, including new segmentation; consolidated violations; simplified violation severity weights; proportionate percentiles instead of safety event groups; improved Intervention Thresholds; greater focus on recent violations; and an updated Utilization Factor.

“We all realized that we were living with an imperfect (SMS) for a long time,” Grove said. “My understanding of those proposed changes, though, is that they're leaving a black box for the actual scoring portion of it and trying to get the framework around it ... I think that leaves a lot of risk of having a framework and a scoring system that don't line up very well.”

See also: FMCSA outlines latest trucking safety initiatives

But perhaps the problem in CSA’s scoring lies somewhere else—literally. Garney said the problem could boil down to “regional geographic experience,” and that, “oftentimes, it's where I drive, not how I drive, that is impacting my score.”

Overall, both Garney and Grove see the administration shifting its enforcement focus to the total violations a carrier has instead of weighing each violation differently based on “severity.”

“The fundamental change here is going to be a move away from ‘Which violations are more important?’ to move towards ‘How many violations are you getting?’” Garney said.

The proposed changes seem to focus more on a “culture of compliance” rather than “specific types of compliance,” Grove said. “I don't know whether that's good or bad in the grand scheme of things, but it is a definite shift in (FMSCA’s) thinking about how we're going to measure fleets and how we're going to decide what is safe in our industry.”

Speed limiters 

Implementing nationwide speed limiters is another regulation on the docket, although the exact speed limit hasn’t been confirmed. While many fleets already govern their trucks at a certain speed, having the speed regulated to large fleets as well as small fleets and owner-operators has received pushback.

Fleets that use speed limiters use them in a variety of ways and for a variety of reasons. One reason could be to increase fuel economy. Another fleet might employ speed limiters for safety reasons. A different fleet might use them to reward their drivers. ATA supports these limiters, Grove said—but the association wants to ensure “specific details” are in place with the regulation. While he didn’t explain those specifics, Grove did mention problems that could arise from not having a national speed limit and the ATA’s concerns about speed differential (having large trucks limited while passenger cars are not).

On the other hand, is it even necessary to enforce speed limiters? Is it too simple a solution to a complex problem?

“We actually see a relatively smaller percentage of crashes that are happening at these high speeds—speeds over 68, which is likely to be the speed that we get from FMCSA,” Garney explained.

See also: Can speed limiters and AEB really make highways safer?

Complex or not, Garney seems to think the government and authorities are a little late in their problem-solving and advancement.

“Why are we still talking about speed limiters, when other solutions exist that can actually prevent more crashes?

“FMCSA and others seem to be reacting to a technological space that is advancing at lightning speeds,” Garney said of the trucking industry.

About the Author

Jade Brasher

Senior Editor Jade Brasher has covered vocational trucking and fleets since 2018. A graduate of The University of Alabama with a degree in journalism, Jade enjoys telling stories about the people behind the wheel and the intricate processes of the ever-evolving trucking industry.    

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