2010: A safety odyssey

Over morning coffee, you scan your company’s latest safety profile from the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. You suffered two injury accidents. Three vehicles and four drivers were placed out of service. Five drivers incurred serious traffic violations. Based on your SafeStat score, FMCSA has flagged you for an audit.

The year is 2010, and the document you just read is your daily safety profile. All of these events occurred in the past 24 hours and were captured instantaneously by a nationwide network of computers, vehicle transponders, electronic control modules, biometric recorders and fixed and mobile communications devices.

In 2010, police officers upload accident reports from the scene to a national database using wireless handheld computers. Roadside kiosks register vehicle speed and identify commercial vehicles through transponders. Electronic onboard recorders notify FMCSA instantly when drivers violate hours-of-service regulations and safely disable trucks until drivers are legal again.

Don’t fret too much over your upcoming audit. It will last only a couple of seconds. FMCSA computers now communicate directly with your information systems and review your digital files. Assuming no serious problems requiring human intervention, you will receive moments later an automated analysis and, if necessary, a request for specific changes in your safety and compliance procedures. You might have to terminate a driver or two, but FMCSA probably won’t make you fire your safety director.

This isn’t necessarily FMCSA’s vision for future motor carrier enforcement, but it’s feasible. The technologies necessary to build such a comprehensive network probably exist today. And while outfitting national, state and local agencies – not to mention motor carriers themselves – with the necessary hardware and software would be quite expensive, the American taxpayer could cover it.

Any fundamental change in FMCSA’s enforcement posture would take time and commitment. But why change at all? FMCSA today can audit only a small percentage of the 675,000 interstate carriers it regulates. And its workload is increasing due to growth in trucking activity, the new entrant program, the upcoming opening of the Mexican border and a greater role in transportation security.

That’s why FMCSA last month announced the Comprehensive Safety Analysis 2010 Initiative. The agency is asking for stakeholder input into a new model for industry oversight. Ideally, FMCSA says, that model would be adaptable to a changing environment, maximize use of resources, improve safety performance, leverage data and technology and be fair and unbiased. And FMCSA wants to go further in safety oversight than current resources allow – even to the point of tracking the safety fitness of individual drivers, corporate officers, partners and safety directors.

The vision for 2010 I outlined at the beginning might meet the requirements of FMCSA’s ideal model, but it isn’t necessarily the best outcome. It mostly makes the regulatory regime we have today dramatically more efficient.

Another option could be to waive most regulations for carriers that show through a low accident rate that they are safe. This approach would give carriers an extra incentive to be safe, and it would free up agency resources to focus on problem carriers. In this vision of the future, FMCSA would use technology to ensure that its accident data is complete, accurate and timely. That way, the agency could be truly comfortable that it knows which carriers are safe and which aren’t.

FMCSA has set 2010 as its target for completing a transformation. Get involved now. Once the agency chooses a path, it must commit to it. You can’t wait two or three years – let alone six – to make your views known.