Reaching a new level of safety

Opposing views of regulation were aired during a panel discussion at last month’s Truckload Carriers Association meeting. Drivers with impeccable safety records – one an award-winning owner-operator and the other a company driver and America’s Road Team captain – squared off on the hours-of-service regulations.

The owner-operator contended that the hours-of-service regulations prevent him from managing his time so that he is driving when most alert. The company driver countered that there are too many young and inexperienced truck drivers to do away with the hours rules altogether. But the debate isn’t just among drivers. For example, the American Trucking Associations last month released a study recommending that drivers have more flexibility to manage fatigue. Meanwhile, Public Citizen and others press for even less flexibility than carriers have now. One side asks that the public trust drivers and carriers to do the right thing; the other believes they can’t be trusted at all.

This sounds like a tired and pointless debate – one that has continued without resolution since Congress passed the Motor Carrier Act of 1935. The federal government won’t stop regulating drivers’ work hours altogether. But the feds could adopt regulations that would reward safe carriers with lower compliance costs and greater operational flexibility.

Today’s safety regulations vary principally by equipment load capacity. A motor carrier with a flawless safety record is expected to follow the same rules as poor-performing carriers. Enforcement, on the other hand, already varies somewhat based on performance. SafeStat helps identify high-risk carriers so that the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration can best leverage its limited resources in conducting compliance reviews. Similarly, the Inspection Selection System assigns carriers scores based on safety performance to help roadside officials decide which vehicles to inspect.

The feds could adopt the same basic approach to regulation. Prove yourself based on objective measures of safety – accident rate, for example – and qualify for a less-stringent set of rules. If the ultimate goal is reducing accidents, does it really matter if we get there through strict governmental regulation or safety-centric corporate cultures?

FMCSA already has taken a groundbreaking step toward performance-based regulation. In its proposed rule on electronic onboard recorders, FMCSA would require certain carriers to install recorders based on their individual performance, not on type of haul or size of equipment. While this is a case of using a stick for poor performance rather than a carrot for superior performance, the premise is the same: Different rules based on compliance and safety.

Suppose there were two classes of motor carriers; let’s call them Tier 1 and Tier 2. Tier 1 motor carriers would be those that achieved one or more critical safety milestones – a certain low accident rate, for example. Tier 2 carriers would be those that had higher crash rates. Tier 2 carriers might operate under today’s safety regulations, while Tier 1 carriers might have their own, less-stringent rules. For example, Tier 1 carriers might have to abide by the weekly cumulative driver hours – with the restart flexibility now in place – but not daily hour limits. In addition to greater productivity and lower compliance costs enjoyed by Tier 1 carriers, some shippers and brokers might prefer them for liability reasons.

Safety incentives should apply to drivers, too, so that they aren’t working against carriers. FMCSA might recognize a higher level of driver – master truck driver, perhaps – who met certain standards for experience, health, crash rate and moving violations. Tier 1 motor carriers might be required to hire master truck drivers for most or all of their positions. Master truck drivers likely would be in high demand and should, therefore, command higher wages.

Trucking, like all industries, wants regulatory relief. But its success will be limited as long as society treats all trucking operations as it would treat marginally safe carriers.