The makings of fresh start

Last month I argued that the American Trucking Association’s “Safe Speeds Save Lives” campaign had the potential to move us away from the never-ending debate over enforcement versus outreach.

Putting aside the problem of speeding four-wheelers, a crackdown on speeding trucks could be the beginning of an enforcement regime based primarily on carriers’ actual safety performance rather than on their regulatory compliance. The idea has been kicking around Washington for years, but it received little attention once U.S. Rep. Frank Wolf launched his campaign four years ago against the Federal Highway Administration’s oversight of motor carriers.

Arguably, the biggest step the feds have taken toward a performance-based system is SafeStat, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s system for identifying high-risk carriers. Although regulatory compliance is a big part of SafeStat, the formula is weighted so that carriers with poor accident records are supposed to get the most attention.

SafeStat is far from perfect, however. Some quibble with the methodology; others point to serious flaws in the underlying data. Regardless, using SafeStat to target carriers for compliance reviews appears, for now, to be as far as government will go toward performance-based fitness procedures.

So let’s assume for a moment that the feds are destined to maintain a heavy emphasis on compliance rather than demonstrated on-highway safety. There are still some positive signs.

Last month, FMCSA issued an “interim final rule” – only bureaucrats could develop such a thing – establishing an 18-month probationary period for carriers seeking to operate in interstate commerce. Congress ordered FMCSA to do this more than two years ago. The rule surely would be languishing still if FMCSA hadn’t had to do something similar regarding Mexican carriers as part of last year’s NAFTA deal. Better late than never.

The rule requires new entrants to show knowledge of safety regulations and to undergo an on-site safety audit before receiving permanent operating authority. FMCSA’s spin on the new-entrant rule is that it represents tougher safety requirements for new carriers. That may be accurate, but there’s another way to look at FMCSA’s rule. It establishes a process by which all new entrants receive educational materials and technical assistance on establishing their safety programs. Also, it appears that FMCSA intends the safety audits to be more about teaching new carriers the right way to do things than about trying to snuff out those that might need improvement. Why not do the same for existing carriers that might not have benefitted from early technical assistance?

The proof is in the application, of course. FMCSA pointed out that, despite the probationary period, it retains full authority to use other enforcement powers – compliance reviews, civil penalties and revocation of new entrant registration for serious safety violations.

Experience shows, furthermore, that politics and public perception trump ideology when it comes to regulation and enforcement. Everyone assumes that Republican administrations go easier on businesses than Democratic White Houses. Don’t count on it. The trucking industry is never more than a dramatic truck crash or a pesky congressman away from hard-line enforcement.

Still, there are other positive signs. In the wake of Sept. 11 and concerns over the security of hazardous materials shipments, enforcement personnel visited thousands of hazmat carriers to review their state of readiness. Although these visits led to a few enforcement actions, federal personnel generally viewed the visits as educational. Could it be that outreach is back? Don’t tell Frank Wolf.