On a high note

Jan. 9, 2009
“There are many important issues that the transportation community must confront these days—including congestion, funding, and an aging infrastructure. But even as priorities change and transportation needs evolve, safety on our roads must remain ...

There are many important issues that the transportation community must confront these days—including congestion, funding, and an aging infrastructure. But even as priorities change and transportation needs evolve, safety on our roads must remain paramount to all priorities.” –From a January 2007 speech by John Hill, outgoing chief administrator for the FMCSA

From a regulatory perspective, these last few years in trucking have been anything but boring. For starters, we’ve witnessed the implementation of revised hours of service (HOS) rules over the last four years – rules that were unchanged for 70 years. Revisions to driver medical qualifications – directly linking those qualifications to their commercial drivers licenses (CDLs) – and truck driver training standards quickly followed.

Efforts to replace paper logbooks with electronic onboard recorders (EOBRs) and create a national drug test result database for the trucking industry got jammed up in the rulemaking process, but proposed rules on both those topics should hit the streets sometime in 2009.

Note, too, that all of this is occurring during one of the most significant periods of improvement in trucking safety – much of it during John Hill’s tenure with the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA), which sadly comes to end in a few short weeks.

I say that because I admire Hill – a veteran law enforcement official that never shied away from speaking his mind, nor from taking stands on issues unpopular with the trucking industry or so-called safety groups such as Public Citizen. (I say “so-called” because if opportunities arise to really make some serious safety advances don’t jibe with their political agenda, they don’t support them.)

Many in the industry didn’t like the beefed-up truck driver training requirements FMCSA put in place, nor were they fans of directly linking a driver’s CDL and medical qualifications – in effect reducing the interval between medical exams from three years to one. On the flip side, Public Citizen (and others) hated the agency’s revised HOS rules and the way it approached the EOBR issue – planning to mandate them only for carriers that repeatedly violated HOS rules, not for the industry as a whole.

None of that mattered to Hill. His approach to trucking safety mirrors the way a police officer patrols a neighborhood beat: Focus on the trouble spots until they are cleared up. “In 29 and one-half years of police work, I can tell you from my experience that in any neighborhood a limited population causes almost all the problems,” Hill explained to me a couple of years ago.

“The biggest challenge we face in terms of improving trucking safety is [finding] where we can achieve the biggest return on our efforts,” he said. “That's really going to come from focusing our energies on those carriers and drivers who don't comply with safety regulations.”

He felt – and still feels – that anything done in the name of trucking safety must produce results. And if the results are positive, then you know you’re on the right path. In a wrap-up interview with reporters yesterday at the new headquarters of the Department of Transportation (DOT), Hill explained that over his nearly six year term at FMCSA – serving as the agency’s chief administrator since May 2006 – all the safety numbers are moving in the right direction.

Large Truck Fatalities: For large trucks specifically, the 2007 fatality figure was 4,808. This was the lowest large truck fatality rate since 1992, and it is a 4.4 percent decrease from 2006. 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 percent.

Large Truck Injuries: In 2007, there were 101,000 injuries from crashes involving large trucks. This is the lowest number on record since NHTSA began keeping track of such statistics in 1988. Five thousand fewer people were injured in large truck crashes in 2007 compared to 2006, a 4.7 percent reduction. Injuries in large truck crashes have dropped steadily since a peak of 142,000 injuries in 1999.

[Here, Hill discusses his frustration over the inability to get an EOBR rule published during his term, along with the difficult funding issues transportation safety will face in the near future.]

Large Truck Fatal Crashes: In 2007, there were 4,190 fatal crashes involving large trucks. This fatal crash number is the lowest since 1993, and is a 3.7 percent decrease from 2006. Large truck fatal crashes have dropped from 4,551 in 2005 to 4,190 in 2007; a total decline of 7.9 percent.

Bus Fatalities: In 2007, 322 people died in all bus crashes, a drop of 4.5 percent from the 337 fatalities that occurred in 2006. This fatality number is the lowest since 2004. (Note: Buses include transit buses, school buses, intercity\motor coach buses, and other buses. FMCSA does not regulate all of these buses but the data does not allow us to pull out just the buses they regulate.)

Bus Fatal Crashes: In 2007, there were 277 bus fatal crashes. This fatal crash number is the lowest since 2004, and is an 8.6 percent decrease from 2006.

Large Truck and Bus Fatality Rate: The total large truck and bus fatality crash rate declined from 0.177 fatalities for every 100 million total vehicle miles traveled in 2006 to 0.170 fatalities in 2007. (Note the 2007 vehicle miles of travel number used in the rate is based on a preliminary estimate from Federal Highway Administration.)

Compliance Reviews: In calendar year (CY) 2008, FMCSA and State safety inspectors completed 15,884 safety compliance reviews of interstate truck and bus companies. This is an increase of almost 32.31 percent from the 12,005 compliance reviews completed in 2003.

Inspections: In addition, State truck inspectors, supplemented by FMCSA staff, conducted in calendar year 2008, 3,445,320 vehicle and driver roadside safety inspections of trucks and buses, and increase of 14.15 percent from 2003.

[In this clip, Hill explains why EOBRs should benefit truck drivers.]

Safety Belt Usage: In 2004, the safety belt usage by commercial truck drivers stood at 48 percent. In 2005, that number went up 59 percent and then up to 64 percent in 2006. In the preliminary results released from National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) recently, that number increased to 72 percent in 2007.

This is all good news to a former cop like Hill – one who worked the trucking beat for more than few years over his career. A member of the Indiana State Police from 1974 to 2003, Hill served as commander of the state’s commercial vehicle enforcement division twice (from 1989 to 1994, and again from 2000 to 2003) and also worked on several industry committees focused on improving commercial vehicle safety – especially by using technology.

In 1991, for example, he served on the Commercial Vehicle Information Systems (CVIS) committee, which led to the development of several FMCSA safety information programs. He also worked closely with the Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance (CVSA), serving on several of its committees.

Though he’s going back to Indiana now, Hill doesn’t plan to completely exit the world of commercial vehicle safety. “I’m looking to still work in the safety arena,” he said.

As he prepares to leave, he believes one of the biggest challenges ahead for the trucking industry is going to be capacity – something that could impact safety down the road as well. “This is an economically tough time – many trucking companies are just trying to stay in existence,” he told us reporters. “When the economy eventually ramps back up again, the problem to watch for is capacity, for a lot of drivers and equipment that went on the sidelines in this downturn are not coming back into the industry.”

We’ll see how that plays out in the future – and what role John Hill may have in addressing it.

About the Author

Sean Kilcarr 1 | Senior Editor

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