Beyond compliance to performance

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When Joseph Clapp, the first and current administrator of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, took the agency’s helm on Oct. 5, 2001, he faced a crisis in confidence over transportation security, especially regarding hazardous materials hauling, and still-uncertain marching orders on bringing Mexican carriers into the United States. He also was confronted immediately with questions that had stacked up for months over how FMCSA would address the hours-of-service issue.

In part one of our interview with Clapp (See “Border opening, security top FMCSA agenda,” CCJ, February 2002, page 18), we addressed these high-profile issues. In this second and final installment, we discuss several other issues, including FMCSA’s regulatory agenda, efforts to cut truck-related fatalities, how Clapp’s long career in trucking might affect his approach to the job and a renewed focus on safety performance rather than mere paperwork compliance.

CCJ: In 1999, the Department of Transportation set a 10-year goal of cutting truck-related accidents in half. Since then accidents have gone down slightly, but certainly not at a pace necessary for that halving. Do you think this is still a realistic goal?
Clapp: First, you’re right, the fatalities have declined in each of the last two years, and that’s counter to the trend of overall fatalities during that time period. Secondly, we’re losing 100 people a week, somebody’s son or daughter, brother or sister, mother, father, and none of us should consider that acceptable. It’s incumbent on us to work together to make a real difference in that outcome.

CCJ: Any ideas on how to speed that process along?
Clapp: Yes, a couple. Our first line of defense and our last chance lies with the person at the controls. So I think that’s where we should focus our efforts for the biggest payoff. Secondly, I’m very hopeful that technology will play an increasing role, or maybe an increasingly effective role in giving the driver meaningful assistance in avoiding crashes. It’s also true that we can’t get there without help from the people with whom we share the highways. So this effort to succeed has to go beyond FMCSA.

CCJ: Regarding technology, are you thinking of mandating things like collision avoidance, on-board monitors, fatigue monitoring devices and so on?
Clapp: I think further research, development, piloting of these technologies and encouraging the use of those that are proven in that process, by whatever means we might be able to bring to support that encouragement.

CCJ: You’ve got a number of rulemakings outstanding. Have you prioritized them?
Clapp: The reality is that we have been tasked with a substantial list of rules to implement. Many of them are well along the process. I’m satisfied that the agency now has in place a good process for meeting our rulemaking obligations, including the use of our ombudsman to facilitate that whole process. And it is also the case, that because of the very large requirement that we have, that we must prioritize, and we do. And as you can imagine, time and events have a way of changing those priorities, much as we would rather it not be so. You would not be surprised to learn that the current priority is getting out the Mexican rules and those associated with it in the appropriations bill as well as the new requirements of the Patriot Act.

CCJ: Are those new requirements going to put back, or further delay some other rules?
Clapp: Put it this way, a year ago none of those would have been on our screen, much less priorities. I should say that one of the things that came up in Senator Breaux’s hearing was the various rules required by the Motor Carrier Safety Improvement Act. The fact is that, even though I doubt if I properly responded at the time, a number of those rules are in fact in effect. And, all of them are being addressed, and many of them are near their final stages.

CCJ: Could you give us a few that might be out relatively early?
Clapp: For example, the certification of safety auditors would be an example. I’m hopeful that the household movers rule will be out shortly after the first of the year.

CCJ: What about driver training? There are a couple of proposals to require mandatory training of entry-level drivers and drivers of longer combination vehicles. I have heard that regulators within the agency do not enthusiastically support these rulemakings. Where are they going?
Clapp: It’s true that those are among those that are not prioritized at this time.

CCJ: It’s unusual to have someone in charge of this agency whose entire career has been in the trucking industry. How will that affect your operations here?
Clapp: Obviously, I think it’s going to be a help. I think I have a feel for what works. It cannot help but be a help to have an understanding of how the industry operates and be able to visualize how a new requirement or a new approach might actually work out in practice, and perhaps to have some feel for which has the best chance of success.

CCJ: How will your history affect your relations with the trucking industry? Would some of the safety activists put you under the microscope more than they would somebody else?
Clapp: I think our relations in any case have to be straightforward. And at the same time, everybody needs to understand that it is the people who are on the road who actually save the lives. We can’t do that by riding shotgun in the truck or from behind our regulators’ desk. Our job is simply to do all we can to help assure that the industry serves America safely.

CCJ: Some of the activists were offended that you didn’t go though a congressional hearing before you were confirmed. How are your relations with the activists? Are you talking with them?
Clapp: I have talked with the advocates very congenially on both parts, and it’s my view that as we go about our business here, we genuinely have to welcome the input of all those that have a stake. It is our duty to thoughtfully consider what they have to offer. I have been around long enough to realize that you get very different views on the same subject in this business. And so, there will be times when you do not reach unanimity. Nonetheless, everyone who has participated in the process must know that their views have been given full and fair consideration.

CCJ: Why did you take the job in the first place? You had a comfortable retirement. You had a long and distinguished career.
Clapp: I certainly had no interest whatsoever in going back to work. I was just getting to the point where I could make 50 cents an hour on the golf course. But the reason was twofold. One is that I have a genuine high regard for [Transportation Secretary] Norman Mineta. The other is that I do have a lot of respect for the mission of this agency. And I would like to feel like I might be able to make some small contribution to achieve it.

CCJ: Do you have any particular new directions, new ideas that perhaps developed over the years and would like to try out, any new directions you’d like to take the agency in?
Clapp: I guess one way of phrasing that is that What we need to accomplish is to go beyond compliance to performance. We do over 10,000 compliance reviews a year. I want everybody to understand that’s not just a matter of totaling up paperwork violations. I want us to look beyond the requirements for inaccurate logs, for example, and understand what matters is having an alert driver at the wheel at 3 in the morning. [I want us] to go beyond the requirement for the maintenance of a driver qualification file to reach the understanding that safety is about people, and what matters is that we have succeeded in our charge to have the best person at the controls making life or death decisions. That’s what matters.