'Crisis level' of truck-occupant deaths looks tragically preventable | Owner-ops' 'war cry' on speed limiters

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Updated Jun 7, 2022

Speaking in the Monday general session of the Truckload Carriers Association's Safety & Security Division meeting in Nashville, Tennessee, Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration Chief Safety Officer Jack Van Steenburg sought to emphasize a tragic aspect of 2021 preliminary crash numbers, which Overdrive reported on recently. That's the number of large truck occupants, whether driver or a passenger, who were killed as a result of a 2021 crash. 

Van Steenburg said that "831 truck drivers or truck drivers' passengers lost their lives" in 2021 in a crash. Compared to numbers a decade ago in 2011, that's nearly a 33% percent increase. "The thing that's really mind-boggling to me," Van Steenburg added, is that 43% of those deaths were of drivers or passengers not wearing a seatbelt; another 25% could well be drivers without a seatbelt, too, given use of the restraint device wasn't noted on a quarter of accident reports.  

"You’re all safety people," he addressed the assembled at the conference of carrier safety personnel. Clearly, a simple reminder of seatbelt regulations might go a long way toward getting field personnel home in one piece, as traffic/congestion rises along with overall crash numbers. "People positively ignore those regulations," Van Steenburg said, noting driver deaths impact friends, families, and entire companies.

Looking at the broader statistical categories, Van Steenburg strives to see "real people" in the numbers, he said. "The outlook’s not good -- working together, we can do a lot more, and do a lot better."

TCA's David Heller, vice president for government affairs, described crashes in 2021 broadly as at a "crisis level on the road. We’ve seen the increases in accidents," he said, urging attendees and everyone in trucking to ask themselves, "What are we doing to fix these issues, so that these trends go the other way?"

Jack Van SteenburgFMCSA's Van Steenburg also addressed the implementation of its under-21 interstate driver pilot program. The FMCSA, he said, was hopeful to begin accepting applications from motor carriers to participate by August or September this year. The pilot program, accepting up to 3,000 drivers, was required by last year's infrastructure bill.[Related: Debating reasons for the rise in truck-occupant crash deaths a decade ago]

Speed limiters approach 'not predetermined'  

During Heller's portion of the general session Monday, he asked attendees to raise their hands if their fleet happened to be using top-speed-limiting settings in their trucks in some ways. Nearly every hand in the room went up. "Speed plays a major role in these accidents," he said, referencing the data Van Steenburg shared, easily the "top one or two reasons for an accident" to happen.

A mandate to use limiters, he suggested, may well be looked on favorably or at least in a neutral way by those in attendance, yet he acknowledged a strong current of opposition to the notion of a mandate among certain trucking constituencies, including Overdrive's owner-operator and small fleet audience. "The agency is actually reading what gets submitted" to the federal docket in response to its recent request for information about speed limiter use, Heller said. A lot of the nearly 15,000 comments already submitted, he added, undoubtedly come from the more than three-fourths of independent owner-operators who oppose the rule. 

"This is a war cry" for many, he added, and "they’re coming out strong." 

[Related: If we're going to limit vehicles' ability to speed, start with the real problem: Cars]

Yet the agency's pursuit of a mandate comes against the backdrop of recently reintroduced legislation to require limiters, and language requiring them in the training rig for any under-21 driver in the pilot program for interstate operations, Heller pointed out, and the agency's gone down the speed-limiter-mandate road before.

"We have no predetermined notions on where we’re going with the speed limiter rule," said FMCSA's Van Steenburg, cautioning watchers on assuming it's a done deal. "We’ll take a look at the comments and the data and so forth and make a decision." 

He urged trucking participants to use the extended comment period (through July 18) on its most recent information request. With almost 15,000 comments in already, he added, "I know we're going t get a lot more. That's an awful lot that we have to go through." 

Van Steenburg declined to offer a timeline for next steps, though Heller guessed it would likely be years before a rule might cycle through development to any final regulation.  

[Related: Owner-operators say no to speed limiter mandate

Possible shift back to more traditional audit footing nationally

FMCSA's Van Steenburg noted his agency is making an effort to put some of the additional money it's received via last year's infrastructure bill to work getting back to in-person compliance reviews, targeted particularly at carriers with demonstrable crash or other issues. Overdrive has documented a counter-trend to those in-person reviews in recent years, accelerated dramatically during the COVID-19 pandemic, as off-site audit numbers ballooned and safety ratings trended sharply negative. In 2021, in fact, for the first time the Conditional rating was the most-common rating issued.    

The big increase in funding for the Motor Carrier Safety Assistance Program grants to state enforcement departments should result in "a little bit more inspections out there" on the road, Van Steenburg said. But "I want to focus on compliance reviews of carriers that present some sort of safety risk. That’s what we’ll focus on with the increased funding," also emphasizing "in-person safety audits." 

That doesn't mean that the agency has fully abandoned, however, its pursuit of a more real-time-data-based approach to safety rating. Van Steenburg noted continued pursuit of a Safety Fitness Determination in the coming years, listed in the "Prerule" stage with the White House Office of Management and Budget after being tabled during the last administration. Such a rating approach would offer more dynamic safety ratings for any carrier, Van Steenburg said.

Today it's possible that a carrier who got a Satisfactory rating 10 years ago could easily have that rating today with nothing underpinning it other than the snapshot of the company as it existed a full decade ago. "Is that a true reflection of your company 10 years later? We’re trying to get a snapshot in time. How we’re going to do that, we don’t know, but it’s on our rulemaking agenda to address the Safety Fitness Determination and make it a current, true reflection of how a company works today."

FMCSA under the Trump administration pulled its last attempt at achieving the SFD via rulemaking in 2017, when it had then been in the works for more than a decade. 

[Related: FMCSA's safety ratings trend negative: A majority issued in 2021 were 'Conditional'

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