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FMCSA’s Hill: A look back, a look forward

Jan. 9, 2009
WASHINGTON D.C. – John Hill has few regrets as his two-and-a -half-year tenure as Chief Administrator of the Federal Motor Carrier Administration (FMCSA) winds down

WASHINGTON D.C. – John Hill has few regrets as his two-and-a -half-year tenure as Chief Administrator of the Federal Motor Carrier Administration (FMCSA) winds down. Hill, who joined the FMCSA in June 2003 as Chief Safety Officer and Assistant Administrator before being named Chief Administrator in May 2006, believes big improvements have been made to the safety profile of the trucking industry on his watch.

“Fatalities in large truck crashes have now dropped for three years in a row, from 5,240 in 2005 to 4,808 in 2007, a total decline of 8.2%,” he told reporters here at a roundtable discussion at FMCSA’s offices. “This [4,808 fatalities] was the lowest large truck fatality rate since 1992, and it is a 4.4% decrease from 2006.”

He also said that large truck fatal crashes have dropped from 4,551 in 2005 to 4,190 in 2007, a total decline of 7.9%, and that 5,000 fewer people were injured in large truck crashes in 2007 (101,000 overall) compared to 2006, a 4.7% reduction. In addition, he said injuries in large truck crashes have dropped steadily since a peak of 142,000 injuries in 1999.

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Hill added that enforcement efforts increased during his agency tenure, with FMCSA and state safety inspectors completing 15,884 safety compliance reviews of interstate truck and bus companies in calendar year (CY) 2008: an increase of over 32% from the 12,005 compliance reviews completed in 2003. In addition, state truck inspectors (supplemented by FMCSA staff) conducted over 3.4 million vehicle and driver roadside safety inspections of trucks and buses in CY 2008 – an increase of more than 14% from 2003.

Yet in his words, he feels “frustrated” by the inability to get electronic onboard recorders (EOBR) regulations on the books, specifically aimed at carriers and drivers who consistently violate hours of service (HOS) regulations.

“The OMB [White House Office of Management & Budget] hasn’t released the EOBR rule – If they did, I’d sign it,” Hill said. “I’m amazed at the number of larger carriers that wanted this [EOBR] rule. Those that have adopted EOBRs see a broader mandate for them as a way to level the playing field – preventing competitors from ‘cheating’ on their log books to get an extra hour on the road.”

Still, Hill thinks an across-the-board mandate for EOBRs in commercial trucks isn’t possible in this economic climate, nor may it be the best technological tactic in the long-term effort to significantly reduce truck-car crash fatalities.

“Look, every fatigue-related crash death is devastating – I wish we could make them all go away,” he explained. “But you’ve got to look at the total cost-benefit analysis. Is it worth mandating technology to address the cause of 1% to 2% of all fatal crashes? You need to put safety technology in place where you get the most benefit: roll stability control and adaptive cruise control systems, for example. This is where you can address 30% to 40% of crash causation. From a cost-benefit standpoint, this is what gets you the most bang for the buck.”

Hill also feels the agency’s long battle to open up the U.S.’s southern border to Mexican carriers was time well spent, despite that fact that its cross-border program was essentially shut down by an act of Congress.

“There was a lot of negative discussion about NAFTA [the North American Free Trade Agreement] during the [presidential] campaign – but the U.S. signed a trade agreement and we’re responsible for living up to it,” he said. “It would be difficult to unwind.”

Yet he argued the attention FMCSA focused on the 7-million annual commercial vehicle crossings of the U.S.-Mexican border paid a lot of dividends – primarily by beefing up safety at the border and getting state law enforcement agencies to pay closer attention to truck traffic. “Before this program we had in some ways a haphazard approach to safety enforcement of carriers at the border,” Hill noted. “It brought state awareness of carriers operating illegally down there. We addressed a problem down there that could have gotten worse.”

Hill hopes the Obama administration will pursue the EOBR rule as well as the creation of a national drug test “clearinghouse” so both law enforcement and the trucking industry can track job applicants who fail or refuse drug tests accurately and quickly.

“Right now, it’s a huge hole in the system. But there’s also a question of who will maintain this database,” he said. “For now, there’s no way for employers to check an applicant’s random drug test history. We need a way to find that out.”

But those are issues for another FMCSA head to deal with. Hill plans to return to his home state of Indiana (which he served as a member of the state police from 1974 to 2000) where he plans to be involved in highway safety issues.

“We’re still killing too many people on the highways – we’ve got to get the numbers down,” he stressed. “There’s no reason we couldn’t cut [truck-car crash] fatalities 30% or 40% by the next reauthorization of the highway bill –with the technology we have today. I mean that. But it’s not going to be easy – especially in these economically tough times.”

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