‘Zero highway deaths’ goal needs general public target

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Updated Mar 4, 2014

While there are no doubt crashes and fatalities that are the fault of the truck driver, it’s been shown ad nauseam in past studies, data analysis, reporting, etc., that passenger-car drivers are the at-fault party in the large majority of accidents on the roads

There was a moment during the first day of the Motor Carrier Safety Advisory Committee meeting a couple weeks ago that stuck out in this context. Its new chairman, Stephen Owings of his own self-styled highway-safety-advocacy group Road Safe America, reminded the committee of the ultimate goal of those who improve safety on he highways. “There’s a lot of talk now in the press and so forth from different sources about trying to get to zero deaths on the highway system,” said Owings. A primary, though not the only, recent source for that goal, at least in the trucking-regulatory realm, is Anne Ferro. I’ve heard her say it many times. She typically acknowledges that, though detractors may dismiss it as a kind of pie-in-the-sky sort of goal, it’s one that she takes seriously as the nation’s top commercial-vehicle-safety regulator.

Owings, however, went on to make a comparison between truckers, who share the roads with the motoring public, and airline pilots and their industry — “It seems like it would be worthwhile for a study to be done and take a look at the airline industry,” Owings said, where statistics show “pretty close to zero deaths” most years, “and consider what would have to happen to FMCSA to achieve what the FAA has achieved.” 

Readers were quick to comment on my Facebook page in response to a post about such a notion.

Earl “Bugsy” MilroyIn order to achieve zero highway fatalities, there would have to be zero vehicles on said highways. 

Daniel McCreary: What Bugsy said. Life in a free country involves risks, and we must, at some point, decide that we are willing to allow risky endeavors to maintain a certain level of freedom and economic activity.

It’s important to keep in mind that the ultimate goal of the MCSAC is to deliver consensus advice to the FMCSA — where such is not possible (and it’s seemed next to impossible at meetings I’ve attended over the past couple years, though I’ve missed several), the MCSAC has voted on various recommendations and sent both majority and dissenting views to FMCSA — and in the case of the latest meeting, to Congress.

Deliberation within the MCSAC Feb. 11 included a process of voting via green stickers for various recommendations out of a list of a total 38. This one, a provision for FMCSA to move ahead with a rulemaking on sleep apnea in medical certifications, received 12 total votes, landing it within the top six measures. For the top 12 of the recs, read this story.Deliberation within the MCSAC Feb. 11 included a process of voting via green stickers for various recommendations out of a list of a total 38. This one, a provision for FMCSA to move ahead with a rulemaking on sleep apnea in medical certifications, received 12 total votes, landing it within the top six measures. For the top 12 of the recs, read this story.

The round of voting on Tuesday, Feb. 11, saw MCSAC members cast one each of 15 votes for their individual top items included in a list of 38 recommendations to send to Congress for potential inclusion in the next highway bill. They were directed to think about the real safety impacts of each item and rank them accordingly. To clarify, each member could only vote once for an item. Those receiving the most votes, which I reported on here, would appear at the top of the list. I’ve included the remaining items in a big list below. 

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Owings’ urged study of the FAA was on the list, and it received only two votes from members, one of nine list items at bottom receiving 2 or fewer votes of support. 

Owings’ invocation wasn’t the last I heard of the “zero highway deaths” goal over the course of the meeting. New Jersey FMCSA Division Administrator Chris Rotondo put the goal perhaps better: “I fail when somebody dies,” he said, talking to the CSA Subcommittee to MCSAC Feb. 12. “There’s a big poster in my office” proclaiming the goal of “achieving zero,” he added. “Not 100, not 1,000. Zero. Is it attainable? If we all take ownership of it — yeah, I believe it is.”

The best advocates for the goal, he said, are “men and women who drive and companies who employ them. We all know we’re going to have a crash at some point. What I’m asking for is for us to have a personal accountability and buy-in that gives us a reason that makes a difference every day.” 

At the end of the day, though, I can’t help but keep coming back to the motoring public’s role in all of this. MCSAC chair Owings represents that public with his organization. FMCSA outreach to that public, in the area of training and not just as an enforcement tip well, might be the best money they’ve ever spent.  

To read through the top 12 among the MCSAC’s highway-bill recommendations, in advance of early House and Senate hearings on the next reauthorization later this week, follow this link. There’s some evidence, at least, that the committee agrees with the above sentiment — boosting the cap on federal funding of state officers’ traffic enforcement activities, and not just on 18-wheelers, was among those top priorities. The items following the top 12 are listed below.  

**Require that the same safety regs apply for CMVs, carriers and drivers in all states regardless of whether the companies, etc., are involved in intrastate or interstate commerce. Chief among the discussion of this item was the lack of a uniform approach to weight regulations and tolerances among the states, among other items (see below item). 

**Changes to Basic Motor Carrier Safety Assistance Program (MCSAP) grant funding to the states. Some enforcement representatives favored changing the federal-state sharing ratio from 80/20 percent to 90/10, given that states are being asked to do a lot more now than in the past. The current level of effort is not sustainable at the state level, some members contended, as states face ever-increasing pressures to do even more.

Most commenters on the idea agreed that such a change should come with no changes to the current maintenance of efforts requirements, which require states to maintain a certain level of enforcement activity. 

At current levels, noted FMCSA, Congress would need to add an additional $30-$40 million to the MCSAP budget to ensure there’s not a net loss to the overall program.

**Require FMCSA to work with industry and the Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance to develop guidelines re: how en route safety inspection of bus/coach operations should be conducted.  “The whole concept makes absolutely no sense to the industry,” said Peter Pantuso, President of the American Bus Association. “Every company out there, they’re all on schedules of some kind and are trying to meet some time requirement,” whether to “connect with a dinner reservation, a theater, whatever it might be. To haphazardly stop them — I can’t imagine what reasonable guidelines would be for something like this?”

Pantuso urged a further focus on destination inspections. 

Janice Mulinax of the California Highway Patrol brought up difficulties in site inspections, were for instance inspectors are “not always allowed on a casino’s land,” for instance, she said. “And a lot of time they’ll let the motor coaches know we’ll be there.”  

 Another topic of bus-safety discussion was potentially regulation of so-called “bus brokers” currently outside regulatory scope. 

**Create dedicated and adequate funding for FMCSA quick-strike forces in trucking. We’ve reported on FMCSA’s quick-strike moves in the world of passenger-carrier investigations, where the past couple of years has seen a near-weekly notice from the agency of yet another bus company shut down for violations. As we’ve also noted, the agency has intended all along to apply “lessons learned” therein to truck fleets. A minority among MCSAC members want that to happen sooner than later.   

**Give motor carriers and drivers access to data to determine if a driver’s privilege to operate has been suspended in any State, at no cost. Rob Abbott of the ATA introduced the idea of a central employer-notification system that would automatically ping an employer when there was a licensure action taken for any reason in any state. (See below.) Todd Spencer of OOIDA brought up the problem that, in many cases, drivers themselves are unaware that a state far from their home base has suspended their privileges for a variety of reasons. “The situation we’re in now,” he said, “is that drivers won’t know until something bad happens.” Giving drivers access to the data held within any employer-notification system was the goal of this item.

**Get rid of the 12 percent federal excise tax on proven safety-related technology to remove the disincentive to invest in it. Schneider National Senior Safety Vice President Don Osterberg introduced this item. “Ultimately, you’d have to give the Secretary of the Department of Transportation the authority to identify technologies for which the excise tax exemption … would apply,” he said.

**Reform of current Commercial Vehicle Safety Plan processes for state enforcement agencies. At issue here were concerns that allocations of funds came with time limits attached, but delivery of the funds was often delayed by dysfunctional Congressional procedures. 

**Direct that an objective review all current regulations (and SMS methodology) be conducted to determine impact and relation to safety and effectiveness. In light of the Government Accountability Office’s report on the effectiveness of the CSA SMS, OOIDA’s Todd Spencer introduced this item, taken up the following day by the MCSAC CSA Subcommittee in greater detail. Find discussions of it via this post, as well as this one

**Require the Federal Highway Administration to conduct a notice and comment rulemaking on uniform tolerances throughout states for axle weights. 

**Provide additional resources to strengthen the DOT truck safety response hotline for driver whistleblowers. Find more discussion of this item via this story.  

**Develop commercial motor vehicle safety ratings. “Today there is no safety rating for commercial vehicles,” said Schneider’s Osterberg. “I feel a moral obligation for our driver associates to put them in the safest vehicle available.” Standards for occupant protection for trucks could “get OEMs to compete on who could build the safest truck,” Osterberg added. 

**Require pursuit of potential regulation relative to DriveCam-type systems. MCSAC chair Owings introduced this item, referencing a presentation he’d seen from a small trucking company that dubbed in-cab video systems the “most cost-effective safety investment he’d ever made,” Owings said. 

Other committee members urged FMCSA to consider whether 90 percent of the goal of the technology could be met with just forward-facing views, but First Fleet’s Gara Catapano, who’s “used DriveCam in our business for many years,” said the driver-facing views “help you understand what the driver’s doing. I think you lose a lot of the safety benefit of the technology without being able to view the driver’s behavior.” 

Lamont Byrd of the Teamsters cautioned what he’s seen as mixed results among union carriers that “use this kind of technology…. Some of this also has audio associated with it. We’ve had drivers retaliated against because they said some unflattering things about supervisors. Nothing to do with safety.” 

“It should be about coaching and improvement, and not punishing drivers,” said Bruce Hamilton of the Amalgamated Transit Union. 

OOIDA’s Spencer reiterated privacy issues: “I heard of an incident where a team is talking about a medical condition one of them have — and the company is aware of that for no other reason than the technology they have in their cabs…. These types of technologies are being rolled out. I don’t know that we do anything that either aids or speeds up or slows down the process. I think it will happen anyway. There will be misuse that will have to be addressed.” 

**FMCSA should create a Voluntary Safety Excellence Program for carriers and drivers. Those who wanted to be a part of it would have to establish (via annual submittals to the Agency) bona fide efforts above and beyond safety regulations. Proponents of the item believed it could be a kind of SmartWay for safety. “Peer pressure can be a very powerful thing,” said Owings.

“I think it’s important that it includes a component for actual results so we don’t just reward effort but results,” said Osterberg.

**Required notice and comment rulemaking process to address the exception that allows the use of Schedule II drugs while driving. The FMCSA’s Medical Review Board has been looking at Schedule II narcotics, available typically with a doctor’s prescription, and their effects of safe driving. If this would “totally eliminate,” said Byrd, a driver under a doctor’s care being issued a prescription that is valid for driving today, “there can be a lot of argument about that.”   

**Revisit the hours of service to more fundamentally change the structure. Clark Freight Lines Danny Schnautz, responding to laughter throughout the room when he brought up the contentious hours subject, noted that “Anyone who’s laughing surely hasn’t had to live with the current rules.” Among his rough suggestions were flexibility for more experienced drivers. “I think everything we’re doing [with hours now] is lipstick on a pig,” he added. He urged a shift that would take into account the 24-hour, seasonally changing nature of the trucking industry, with an emphasis, generally, on flexibility. 

For further discussion on the related issue of detention, see prior reports from MCSAC here and here. Expanding FMCSA authority over shippers/receivers to impose requirements relative to detention was number 2 on the overal MCSAC list.   

**Authorize FMCSA, working with Health and Human Services, to establish standards to allow motor carriers to use hair testing results as an alternative for pre-employment and random drug tests. The national drug-test clearinghouse “should also include positive drug tests from the hair of commercial drivers,” said Schneider’s Osterberg. 

Said Todd Spencer: “I don’t see how hair testing does away with the need to do urine testing. Hair testing hasn’t been approved by DHHS” — for good reasons. “If those issues weren’t resolved you’d end up with legitimate court cases where those deemed to be test-positive would challenge the test result…. It’s premature to put anything like this in the regulations.”

**Require FMCSA to implement a national employer-notification system (for any licensure action, e.g. suspension, revocation). See related item above, and find more discussion in this story. 

**Require a study of the airline industry to determine what FMCSA may need to do get to zero deaths on the highway. (Refer to discussion above.)

**Put all petitions to FMCSA up for public comment/review.

**Direct the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to expedite cases of retaliation again drivers brought under the provisions of the Surface Transportation Assistance Act that prohibit retaliation where safety is at stake.   

**Authorize FMCSA to collect social-security numbers from officers of registered entities as part of the vetting process. Perception from some members that this might help guard against chameleon carriers drove the recommendation. 

**Set a uniform national highway speed limit for all vehicles. “Rather than play this state-by-state roulette,” noted Schneider’s Osterberg, where some limits have risen to 80 mph.  

**Eliminate statutory exemptions going forward — require anyone requesting an exemption from any regulation to show an improved level of safety.  

**Increase New Entrant Safety Assurance program funding to FMCSA for more inspectors/overtime funding for states. 

**Make adaptive cruise control the only kind of cruise available on heavy trucks. 

**Explore identification requirements for trailers that would identify the driving company/DOT number on the rear of the trailer.

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