‘Let’s get on with it’

John Hill

In August, John Hill formally took over as administrator of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, although he is hardly a rookie. Hill previously served as FMCSA’s assistant administrator and chief safety officer. Prior to that, he served from 1974 to 2003 with the Indiana State Police, including a stint as commercial vehicle enforcement commander from 1989 to 1994.

CCJ Editorial Director Avery Vise met with John Hill on Sept. 15 to discuss some of the top issues facing the agency today.

The White House is reviewing draft regulations on the new entrant program. Is that just finalizing the interim rule?

The rule is more than just a clean-up. It’s going to really put some teeth into the new entrant program, and it’s intended to tighten up some of the gaps we found when the interim final rule was published. We anticipate it being tougher on enforcement of the new entrant. If they don’t meet certain thresholds, they are not going to be approved.

In the next few years we are going to see the benefits of a fully developed new entrant program. We’re starting to visit new entrants on the front end. There’s less of the carrier developing bad habits because we have been there to talk to them.

One controversy you face is the posting of complete SafeStat data on the Web. Will we see SafeStat scores online again?

I personally believe that the data should be up. It keeps people honest. It keeps people accountable. If I know that my performance is going to be viewed by others – specifically those that use my services – it’s going to impact my behavior. The critics of that position say that’s fine as long as the data is accurate, and I understand that. But data is something that you are constantly improving.

The thing we have been criticized so much about is completeness, timeliness and accuracy. We have put into place some things we think are improving that.

But here’s why I didn’t repost the data. I became aware that the Office of Inspector General was going to update its audit of SafeStat and that the General Accounting Office was doing a study on it, and I felt that it would be premature to post the data if there were specific recommendations that would need to be addressed. I’m still committed to posting the data.

Another hot topic is the electronic onboard recorder. What can you say about the regulations under White House review?

We’ve been working to develop a notice of proposed rulemaking for electronic onboard recorders to show good faith to the [U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia] ruling that we were serious about addressing these issues. I have to be careful here. I can’t speak to whether [the EOBR] will be required or voluntary – that’s going to have to be determined in the rulemaking.

But the important thing is that there is a lot of technology that’s being used in the industry. What we need to figure out is how do we use this technology to improve safety and performance on the highway in terms of hours of service. How do we keep people honest? How do we make it usable in such a way that people truly benefit from the ancillary impact of using this technology?

What we found in the hazardous materials operations test is that when companies – even reluctantly – embraced technology, they were literally amazed by what kind of benefits it gave them in the way they managed their fleet and how they could run operations more effectively and efficiently. We have to capture those kind of things in the electronic onboard recorder issue. And we have to help people see how it’s going to benefit them, not just hold them accountable.

To date, FMCSA’s principal response to the court on the hours rules has been to severely limit split rest for drivers. Is that enough to satisfy the court?

I hate for this to be the standard reply, but I have to be careful what I say because we are in litigation. But I would say that we believe we have addressed what they vacated the rule on – driver health. The interesting thing about the rule is that we have people attacking us because it’s too strenuous, and you have people saying it’s not strenuous enough. It’s a little bit Pollyannaish to think we can just easily write something that makes everybody happy or takes care of the safety problem that simply.

The Large Truck Crash Causation Study highlighted driver-related factors, and FMCSA officials have promised more focus on drivers. What are you doing?

We have started putting together driver-related initiatives that will impact our regulations, our information technology systems and our enforcement policy. For example, we have recently developed the Driver Information Resource. Instead of sorting data by carrier, which has been the traditional approach, we now have an IT tool that allows us to enter a driver name and every piece of performance information on a driver. In the early testing with states, they really like it. The goal for next year is to make this available in some form to the motor carrier community.

Another thing is we want to bring more people into the inspection process to address drivers. We now can use up to 5 percent of grant funds to enforce violations against non-commercial motor vehicles operating around CMVs. That’s going to be a major thrust for me – enforcing driver performance.

Truck-involved fatalities haven’t dropped to the degree the Department of Transportation stated as its goal in the 1990s. How can you make a big impact?

Within DOT we are revisiting this. The current DOT goal is 1 fatality per 100 million miles traveled for all highway crashes by 2008 and 1.65 fatalities per 100 million miles for truck-involved fatalities. If you look at the trend line, to get to 1 fatality is 2018 using current countermeasures.

I want to save lives, and I want to get us to that number long before 2018. So if we can find technologies like collision avoidance, adaptive cruise control, lane departure warning systems and we can save a lot of lives, then let’s get on with it and not delay. The forward-thinking companies are saying, “Look, if I can limit my liability by using this kind of technology, why wouldn’t I invest in it now?” That’s how we have to get people to think.