Teaching the new guys

It’s often said that one of the biggest lies told is that “I’m from the government, and I’m here to help you.” In at least one instance, however, that promise may really prove true. Stressing education rather than enforcement, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration hopes to improve the safety of new motor carriers. Although your company probably isn’t affected by this initiative, a successful implementation could encourage further moves toward industry outreach. It could also help make highways safer for all motorists.

The new entrant safety program, which was mandated by the 1999 law that created FMCSA, took effect at the beginning of this year and is intended to focus resources on those carriers that need education – and possibly enforcement – the most. New carriers must pass a safety audit within the first 18 months of beginning operations. But “it’s primarily an educational effort,” says Warren Hoemann, FMCSA’s acting deputy administrator. “With any new job or business, there is a learning curve. New carriers may be well intentioned, yet still make mistakes. We want to educate them.”

The value of such a program is hard to challenge, Hoemann says. Various bodies of statistics, including a Volpe National Transportation Systems Center study focusing on new entrants, show that new motor carriers are involved in more accidents and are less likely to comply with regulations than established carriers. So clearly intervention is warranted. Moreover, it’s easier to be non-adversarial with a new carrier than with one that supposedly has had many years to learn the ropes. Roadside inspectors and safety auditors rightly would expect more of an established carrier run by veteran managers.

Still, established carriers stand to benefit indirectly in the form of greater highway safety. For the entire 18-month period, new entrants will be flagged as “inspect” by the Inspection Selection System. The program will help law enforcement focus on carriers that need to be stopped and checked.

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A safety audit of a new entrant will not occur until the carrier has operated for at least 90 days. Then, an appointment is set up for a two- to four-hour interview, which may include a look at the facility and equipment. But, there is more to the procedure than the audit. It includes a two- to three-hour individual or group seminar on safety, Hoemann says. In addition, the auditor may allow a carrier to undergo only a group audit done in conjunction with a group seminar, at his discretion.

Hoemann insists that unless there is evidence of trouble with the carrier, the whole experience is intended to be more like “a group hug” than an intimidating Internal Revenue Service tax audit. From the carrier’s perspective, the experience might not be that warm and fuzzy, but Hoemann’s basic point remains valid. The new entrant program is more about remediation than enforcement.

A new entrant could still face a traditional compliance review for various reasons, such as a fatal accident. In that case the CR would substitute for the safety audit. Or a safety audit could lead to a full CR if the auditor finds serious violations.

There are various financial incentives for states to participate in the new entrant safety program, which is federally funded. But participation by the states is not mandatory, Hoemann says. If a state is not conducting the audits, contract auditors for FMCSA will perform them.

The bottom line is that the program is not a nightmare for new carriers. “There is a somewhat higher failure rate during initial audits,” Hoe-mann says. “But, you then have 45 days to resubmit. Most problems can be fixed, and the passing rate is very high.” Even for those who fail, options include the opportunity to correct defects and submit evidence of corrective action. And, those who believe the auditor has been unfair can request an administrative review of the decision.

Let’s hope the program helps blaze a trail that leads us further in the direction of substituting education for citation.