Owner-ops: Carrier rewarding system a way to help big carriers, ice out small ones

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2015 11 03 16 47More concerns and questions were raised than praise given Tuesday at an FMCSA hearing intended to gather carrier and trucking industry stakeholder input on the potential establishment of a program to reward carriers who go above and beyond minimum requirements of federal safety rules.

The listening session was the first of two to be held this month on a so-called “beyond compliance” program. FMCSA held the session to seek input from carriers on three questions:
(1) What voluntary safety technology or programs would be appropriate to reward,
(2) What incentives could encourage carriers to adopt such technology or programs, and
(3) How the agency could verify implementation of such programs and their effectiveness.

The program’s goal, as outlined in the FAST Act highway bill, is to give carriers some sort of safety credit, such as better CSA scores or reduced inspection instances, as a reward for voluntarily investing in safety technology or programs.

Small carrier interest loomed large at Tuesday’s public meeting, with several owner-operators and small fleets offering comments and few large carriers or their interest groups giving feedback.

Several commenters voiced concern over rewarding big carriers with deep pockets for investing in technology that could be both intrusive to drivers and yield little in the way of reduction of crashes. Many commenters also said safety technology, while not to be dismissed, shouldn’t replace proper driver training as the best way to improve highway safety.

FMCSA Chief Safety Officer Jack Van Steenburg reminded speakers several times during the four-hour session that driver training programs could very well fit the bill for a final “beyond compliance” program.

And though a proposed entry-level driver training rule will likely be published sometime this year, there’s still plenty of room for carriers to go above the driver training minimums the looming rule is expected to spell out, said Scott Grenerth, directory of regulatory affairs for the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association.

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“Can there be training that goes beyond [the ELDT rule]? Oh my goodness yes,” Grenerth said. “It’s a good solid first step, but there’s wide open territory to go beyond” the rule’s requirements.

Grenerth also said that, no matter what the agency ultimately decides to reward, be it technology investments or other safety programs, issuance of rewards should be tied to results, such as fewer crash instances, and not tied to simply implementing a program or technology.

“It’s one thing to say you are in compliance with regulations,” he said. “It’s another thing to say you’re being safe, period.”

Woody Chambers, an owner-operator and OOIDA board member, noted that large carriers, who often are the first to adopt new safety technologies like active braking systems or driver monitoring systems, generally have higher crash rates per million miles than small carriers and owner-operators, those least likely to run with such safety tech.

The beyond compliance program, he said, seems like a way “to reward carriers who crash twice as much as we do, which seems to be at odds with the agency’s mission to reduce crashes.”

If implementing safety technology does lower crash instances for large carriers, that should be reward enough, Chambers added, blaming high crash rates on carriers’ proclivity to hire “less experienced drivers.”

Commenters also expressed concerns about FMCSA using the program as a means to implement more safety mandates or dilute the CSA scores of those carriers who don’t invest in voluntary over-compliance.

FMCSA’s Larry Minor attempted to quell such concerns, by saying the agency does not intend for the program to become a regulation applied to all carriers, nor does it plan to use the program as a pilot program for new mandates.

Passenger carrying owner-operator Lawrence Dulin, however, told FMCSA he worries that if the agency uses a publicly viewable badge, perhaps in conjunction with a carrier’s CSA Safety Measurement System profile, “beyond compliance” may evolve into a necessity, as shippers could view “beyond compliance” as a hiring standard.

Given small carriers’ inability to bankroll investments in often-times costly safety tech, publicity of the beyond compliant carriers could cost small carriers customers.

A second listening session on the beyond compliance program is scheduled for Jan. 31 in Atlanta. Click here for more details.