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Heller: Regulatory reviews raise questions

Dec. 7, 2023
FMCSA pushes changes on DataQ and how carrier safety fitness is judged.

The cold air is blowing here in Washington, D.C., coming on the heels of a relatively active regulatory season from the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration as the agency moves forward with changes and rulemaking likely to impact fleet safety operations. 

The agency seems to be pushing forward on changes that would impact the DataQ process and the safety fitness of carriers across the country. It seems they are eager to beat the proverbial clock before an administrative change when the Congressional Review Act comes into play. More questions than answers accompany these proposals as presented. 

The DataQ process, as it pertains to the Compliance, Safety, Accountability program, or CSA, has presented itself with a proposal that could incorporate a federal appeals process for those accidents in question. At first thought, this seems to be good news for an industry often blamed for crashes despite extenuating circumstances placing blame elsewhere. Yes, the Crash Indicator BASIC, or Safety Score (if we go by yet another proposed new name), is broken up into crashes and accidents that have been reviewed and are not in SMS. However, creating federal appeals processes from the start to address these extenuating concerns could have a positive effect.  

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

No one ever said the federal agency could move expeditiously, but the question of appeals applies to the time-sensitive nature of these weighted accidents that appear on carriers’ profiles. In other words, if the appeal takes an excessive amount of time to determine the outcome, does it really matter if the appeal is filed? Considering that the longer an accident remains as part of the CSA score, the less weight the crash has to it.  

Timing plays into the appeals process, but creating one federal standard to eliminate state-by-state questions also rings true. I get it. Some states tend to operate differently than others regarding some of these things. But for an industry that operates in interstate commerce daily, one standard nationwide would be the optimum course of action.  

Further fueling the fire is the Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking that FMCSA is finally getting around to. I say finally, since this has been on the regulatory docket since 2016. It’s no secret the agency lacks the bench strength to visit every carrier it needs to when determining if these carriers are Satisfactory, Unsatisfactory, or Conditional.  

As recently as 2019, only 11,671 compliance reviews were conducted in an industry with more than 567,000 registered motor carriers. Many fleets have not had a review since the ‘90s. 

Motor carriers should not be afraid to have their safety fitness determined; however, they should insist that it be determined correctly. FMCSA admits this process is resource-intensive and reaches just a small percentage of carriers. The proposal allows trucking to weigh in on what it should look like. Every organization should take part in the regulatory process and make recommendations based on their own fleet operations. If we don’t say anything, we’d have no one to blame but ourselves. 

While it certainly appears that FMCSA began to act on some outstanding changes that need to be made, please understand that these are not processes by which the agency dictates change. They seek input on their practices by acknowledging that both DataQ and Safety Fitness Determination can be improved. 

We, as an industry, should be part of the process to provide the agency with the information it requires. By creating well-rounded rules that we can understand and accommodate, we will eventually be able to remove the unsavory elements that should not be practiced in our business in the first place. 

David Heller is the senior vice president of safety and government affairs at the Truckload Carriers Association. Heller has worked for TCA since 2005, initially as director of safety, and most recently as the VP of government affairs.

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