A new cop on the beat

Avery Vise is editorial director of Commercial Carrier Journal. E-mail avise@randallpub.com.

Joseph Clapp this month ends his fairly brief tenure as head of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. Clapp’s legacy is principally one of execution. During his tenure, FMCSA implemented safety requirements mandated by Congress for the opening of the Mexican border. The agency also completed several rulemakings that Congress had required almost three years ago.

The next FMCSA administrator will arrive with a rare opportunity. Truck safety has drawn far less public attention recently than usual. A decline in the rate of fatal accidents involving trucks may have played a role. But the real reason is the intense focus on terrorism, which has diverted attention that otherwise would have been paid to truck safety. The public drumbeat for knee-jerk enforcement in the late 1990s is barely a light tapping today.

This diminished scrutiny for the truck safety community might end once the Mexican border opens. But for the moment, FMCSA – if it is so inclined – could pursue a new agenda, one built more on a partnership among government, industry and safety advocates than today’s regime. Perhaps “outreach” is no longer the dirty word it was four years ago. Imagine an agency that judged its agents not by how many compliance reviews they conducted but by how few they needed to conduct. FMCSA has taken only tentative steps in that direction.

But a shift in emphasis won’t just happen. An agent of change is needed.

Enter Annette Sandberg, who will replace Clapp – at least on an acting basis. On Nov. 25, Sandberg moved laterally – from deputy administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to the same post at FMCSA. Previously, she served six years as chief of the Washington State Patrol, becoming the first woman to head a state police agency and doing so at 33. Sandberg served 11 years as a patrol officer, sergeant and lieutenant and earned both a law degree and an MBA during that period.

Sandberg could be in line for the top FMCSA post. Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta indicated that the new deputy administrator would “occupy” the top spot when Clapp leaves, but he could just mean that Sandberg would head the agency in an acting capacity until someone else is selected.

Assuming, however, that Sandberg is the next FMCSA administrator, she could set a new course. That might seem unlikely given her 17-year career in law enforcement. But it’s really Sandberg’s law enforcement background that gives her the flexibility and political cover to do something different.

Consider Clapp’s career. He worked in trucking about 35 years, from safety director of a small trucking company to chairman and CEO of Roadway. Had he come into the job emphasizing outreach or partnership he would have been attacked as being too cozy with the industry. Clapp is an able executive, and his appointment clearly was intended to satisfy motor carriers. But Clapp’s “baggage” made it impossible for him to embrace the industry in the way that a former top cop could.

And there is some evidence that Sandberg would try new things. The buzz on Sandberg’s tenure as head of the Washington State Patrol was that she challenged the status quo and didn’t shy away from controversy. Consider Gov. Gary Locke’s statement when Sandberg announced her resignation in November 2000 after a high-profile tenure.

“She did not just approach difficult problems with traditional approaches, such as writing tickets,” Locke said. “Her approach was to create partnerships with involved communities and find creative solutions to difficult societal problems.”

That sounds like a person who could offer stakeholders an FMCSA focused on a safer motor carrier industry, even if it means dangling more carrots and using fewer sticks.