AUSTIN, TX. There's been a different tone at the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA)—it's stood out this year as the agency has held, for instance, a string of listening sessions on key regulatory issues. At the American Trucking Assns.' (ATA) Management Conference & Exhibition here in Austin, FMCSA Administrator Ray Martinez gave updates on top items and shared some thoughts, offering insight on the agency's work behind the scenes.
ATA President and CEO Chris Spear called out the change in FMCSA that's been noticeable particularly since Martinez came on as administrator in February. "We have not witnessed this level of engagement since the inception of the agency," Spear said.
Martinez said that's exactly the intention: he wants FMCSA to hear from the trucking industry in crafting and adjusting regulations, not dictate from an ivory tower. "My mantra is 'collaboration and communication,'" he said.
It's making for a more informed regulatory process, even though "we may not always agree, and everyone may not like what comes out of the sausage factory," Martinez added. He threw in a plug or two for President Trump and his administration, contending the president understands trucking's importance to the economy "instinctually" and even "has an affinity" for trucking.
Along those lines, Martinez stressed that President Trump has directed government agencies including FMCSA to review regulations and reduce regulatory burdens where it makes sense to do so. With midterm elections around the corner, Martinez very thinly disguised a call for voting Republican, urging careful consideration before filling out that ballot in November: "Elections have consequences," he said.
Topics Martinez discussed included:
Electronic logging devices (ELDs) and the Hours of Service (HOS) rules
Joining FMCSA earlier this year just before full enforcement of ELDs began "was an interesting buzz saw to walk into," Martinez quipped. But he said that on balance, FMCSA does believe ELDs will improve safety without impeding commerce.
"There is still work to be done here," he noted, possibly to include making adjustments or changes to the Hours of Service rules that ELDs are built around and enforce. Martinez didn't say whether FMCSA has decided to move forward with HOS changes, only that the agency is actively considering it.
"We're exploring ways to make the regulations more responsive to current industry realities and prevailing safety needs," he said. FMCSA got more than 5,000 comments in all on its proposal to revise the HOS rules, and Martinez told the audience the agency is going through all those to "synthesize" their recommendations and any potential action plan.
"We're hoping to have some progress as soon as we get through that and move forward to the next step," he said.
With ELDs, though, he said the trucking industry is "still in a transitional phase" as people get used to the technology, older Automatic Onboard Recording Devices are phased out, and law enforcement gets fully up to speed with all the devices out there.
Martinez urged attendees not to focus on completely autonomous cars and trucks, particularly the latter, that will take over the driver job entirely. He said such a focus would "scare people away" and implied it could lead to restrictive legislation that would impede the technology from being developed in the United States and allow other countries to take the lead.
"Harnessing technological changes in transportation is an important way that FMCSA seeks to meet our safety mission," he argued. "Technology is the next frontier that can usher in greater safety for commercial motor vehicles and drivers and for motorists. Crash avoidance technologies are going to help everyone."
He called on the trucking industry to support incremental increases in automation such as advanced driver assistance systems. "What I'm talking about as a government official right now, today, as we speak is making sure that we have a fertile environment for innovation and for testing," Martinez said.
"You're going to scare the public, you're going to scare the industry, and you're going to scare people who want to get into this industry if we don't phrase this properly," he added. "If you get into this industry as a driver, you're going to have a career if you want it for a very, very, very long time. And if you have technology skills, even better. So let's not scare away folks."
He also pointed to the U.S. Dept. of Transportation's latest guidelines on where the government stands on automated vehicles. "This is a snapshot of where we are. If you're in industry, you'll want to read that," Martinez said.
Crash reporting for commercial carriers
An issue that FMCSA has been working on for many years is how collisions are recorded and reported in motor carrier data.
Joe DeLorenzo, director of the agency's Office of Compliance and Enforcement, once summed the issue up this way: "You that are trucking company operators all have probably had this happen to you. You had a crash, it's not your fault, and it shows up on your record and affects your [Compliance, Safety, Accountability] score."
An audience member at the ATA session complained of such a situation. He claimed his company had just had two collisions with its trucks caused by passenger car drivers—one "high on drugs" who veered across a median and another who sped into the back of a trailer coming onto the highway—where the truck drivers "had nothing to do with it."
But the accidents ended up going on the carrier's record, he said, and asked for help from FMCSA.
"I agree with you on that. That is an issue that I've heard across the country, and it's something that I commit to working on," Martinez said. He pointed to FMCSA's pilot program on crash assessment that seeks to keep collisions like the attendee described from going on the carrier's record.
"I would love to see the day when we can expand [the program] and we can eliminate crashes where you really have no fault," emphasized Martinez. "I understand you feel it's unfair, but that also reflects poorly on us as an agency."
California meal and rest break rules
California requires that all employees who work a five-hour shift be provided a meal break of at least 30 minutes; employee and employer can agree to waive the break if the shift is no more than six hours.
Employees who work a 10-hour shift must get two meal breaks of at least 30 minutes, unless the shift is no more than 12 hours and employee and employer agree to waive that second break. The state also requires employees be allowed to take off-duty rest breaks of 10 minutes per every four hours worked.
ATA has petitioned that FMCSA determine whether federal HOS law preempts California's laws in this regard. Unions oppose such a preemption. Since it's an ongoing matter, Martinez didn't say what FMCSA's decision will be, but he indicated a federalist approach and get a round of applause as he did.
"I am very, very, very concerned about a patchwork system where every state gets to decide these issues. That is not just an issue of commerce, it's an issue of safety," Martinez emphasized. "Everything we look at is through the lens of safety, and that's how we'll be evaluating this."
FMCSA requested comments on ATA's petition, and that comment period will not be extended beyond its set closing date of Monday, Oct. 29 although the International Brotherhood of Teamsters and American Assn. for Justice have asked for more time.
From their perspective, the Teamsters have argued that the petition "stands to fundamentally alter the role states could play in regulating commercial drivers for the foreseeable future" and "would impact nearly every commercial driver in the state, including the tens of thousands operating under a Teamster contract."
Allowing under-21-year-old drivers to operate commercial motor vehicles in interstate commerce
Drivers under 21 years old can operate commercial motor vehicles within a state if the state allows it, but not across state lines.
Trucking companies, as they struggle to find enough drivers, have noted that requiring interstate truck drivers to be 21 removes high school grads from the potential hiring pool, and grads who might've considered the position end up in trades or something else. FMCSA has been considering whether to allow under-21 drivers to get their CDL and operate across state lines.
Martinez noted the agency will test things out with military drivers to explore the issue. "We'll assess the safety impacts of allowing qualified military personnel to operate [commercial motor vehicles] in interstate commerce when they transition to civilian careers or if they are doing both military and civilian careers," he explained.
He said the program could benefit "not just military personnel, it can benefit the industry," indicating his feeling that under-21 commercial drivers aren't necessarily like the larger community of 18-to-21-year-old motorists.
"There's not unanimity of opinion on this," Martinez ceded. "But we understand that there are very good drivers who are under 21 driving in states around this country and doing an excellent job.
"I know what the problem is with young drivers; the insurance companies know what the issues are," he continued. "But maybe there's a difference. Is there a difference when somebody gets a CDL and that's how they earn a living and they decide they're going to take it seriously? I think there is."
Combating human trafficking
In this regard, Transportation Sec. Elaine Chao recently appointed members of an advisory committee on human trafficking that includes ATA Vice Chairman and President/ CEO of Garner Transportation Sherri Garner-Brumbaugh.
"This is a serious issue in this country. America's airways, roadways, and waterways are being used to enslave people," Martinez said. "The old slave market continues, believe it or not." DOT, he said, "is working to detect, deter, and disrupt human trafficking whenever and however we can," including helping people report suspicious activity.
The No Human Trafficking on Our Roads Act permanently prohibits anyone who uses a commercial vehicle to commit a felony in human trafficking from operating a CMV in the future, Martinez noted. The Combating Human Trafficking in Commercial Vehicles Act expands FMCSA's outreach and education to improve human trafficking recognition, prevention, and reporting activities.
'An iterative process'
Martinez reinforced throughout his discussion that FMCSA's mission is safety. "Everything that we do as an agency, from research to rulemaking to enforcement, is intended to help us further our mission to prevent crashes, injuries, and do a better job preventing fatalities on our roadways from commercial motor vehicles," he said.
But improving safety doesn't mean just issuing more regulation, he added, indicating that regulation is "an iterative process" and that FMCSA wants to engage the trucking industry on things that could be improved.
"There is a school of thought in some quarters and certainly in D.C. that more laws and more regulation necessarily equal better safety," he said. "This is a logical fallacy; it's essentially 'regulation by the pound.'"
Further, if there's confusion about regulations among those who are subject to them, it's a good bet there's also confusion on the enforcement side of those regulations, Martinez pointed out. "That's not good for us, and it doesn't work to our advantage if we lose that credibility as an agency."
"We remain extremely interested in collaborating and listening to your insights and input, and not just up here giving a speech," he said. "We want real communication where we don't dodge around the issues and we talk about the things that will make a difference."