FMCSA’s oversight of high-risk carriers subject of House hearing

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The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration has improved its oversight and compliance reviews of high-risk carriers, but work remains to be done, members of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee were told Wednesday, July 11.

“We have significantly increased our compliance reviews since 2004,” FMCSA Administrator John Hill said during testimony on his agency’s oversight of high-risk carriers to the House Subcommittee on Highways and Transit. State involvement deserves much of the credit for that improvement, said Hill, who credited California and Minnesota for their participation in the compliance review arena.

The Motor Carrier Safety Improvement Act of 1999, which created FMCSA, required the agency to reduce fatalities involving commercial motor vehicles by 50 percent by 2009, and to submit a plan to Congress to quantify the agency’s progress. In 1999, more than 5,365 individuals were killed in large truck crashes compared to 5,212 in 2005, an improvement of less than three percent.

Work remains regarding the gathering of nonfatal crash information from states, Hill said. Since FMCSA’s 2004 review of SafeStat, the number of large-truck crashes reported has improved 32 percent, Hill said. “The problem is that pockets of the country haven’t seen that data improvement,” he said. States have to improve data quality, and nonfatal crashes are “the next arena we have to move into,” Hill said.

Calvin Scovell, inspector general for the Department of Transportation, says FMCSA has made important progress in monitoring and improving motor carrier safety and has plans for continued improvement. But progress appears to have “flatlined,” Scovall said, and further reductions in the fatality rate will be difficult to achieve. “One of the concerns I have is a large majority of of drivers still don’t wear safety belts,” said Scovall, who described high-tech safety systems such as lane-departure warning systems as “probably the wave of the future.” Companies will need incentives to adopt such expensive technology, Scovall said.

Rep. Peter A. DeFazio, D-Ore., asked what criteria is used to determine if a driver is unsatisfactory. “There is a mechanism to place a driver out of service,” Hill said. “We certainly take action when we determine it’s occurred, but that’s a very labor-intensive process.” A roadside computer check can be conducted to determine if a driver already has been fined, Hill said.

As part of FMCSA’s CSA 2010 initiative, violations will be evaluated on a monthly basis to determine the status of the motor carrier, rather than having to wait to conduct an onsite review, said Hill, who added that a pilot test of CSA 2010 will be conducted in four states.

Data for both the driver and carrier must be used to evaluate safety, rather than just truck crash data, said Deborah Hersman, a member of the National Transportation Safety Board. Hill said the CSA 2010 operational model — which will measure performance using seven Behavioral Analysis and Safety Improvement Categories (known as BASICs) — includes both drivers and carriers.

“We made this recommendation in 1999,” Hersman said. “It would be ambitious to get it done by 2010.”

Rep. Grace Napolitano, D-Calif., asked Scovall “What is the major issue? How can we address this issue?” Scovall’s response: “We believe a prime focus should be on the driver.” “Would tamper-proof safety logging help?” Napolitano asked. “That would help us, as far as documenting hours of service and false logbook entries,” Scovall said.

Susan Fleming, director of physical infrastructure issues for the Government Accountability Office, testified that past crashes are the best determinant of future crashes. GAO recently estimated that if FMCSA used a statistical approach, it could increase its ability to identify high-risk carriers by about 9 percent over SafeStat.

FMSCA has only a small set of resources, and they’re trying to make the most of those resources, Fleming said. With CSA 2010, “They’re trying to get the biggest bang for their buck,” she said.

Rep. Todd Platts, R-Pa., asked Hill if any progress has been made to improve the commercial driver’s licensing process. Plans are being drawn to merge the medical and CDL certification processes, Hill testified, and a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) on the training of entry-level drivers is pending, hopefully later this year. “The industry is very interested in this issue,” Hill said.

Missing crash data can seriously affect the ranking of a motor carrier, leading to either more or less oversight than is appropriate, Scovall said. For example, a high-risk carrier with many unreported nonfatal crashes might not be targeted for FMCSA’s attention, even when it should be. “We do not know how many nonfatal crashes are missing from the FMCSA data, but independent assessments of crash data completeness for 15 states have shown that only 64 percent of the nonfatal large truck crashes that should have been reported were included in FMCSA’s database,” he said.

FMCSA should undertake a data quality study, managed by the University of Michigan’s Transportation Research Institute, Scovall said. “A ‘back-to-basics’ approach would help,” he said, which would include FMCSA working with states to train their own people on how to obtain accurate nonfatal crash data.

Much discussion centered on a March crash that occurred on the Washington Beltway involving B.K. Trucking of New Jersey. The driver — who had a suspended CDL when involved in the crash that killed a husband and father of two small children — previously had received driving citations in six states, including citations for speeding, careless driving, inattentive driving, driving with defective brakes, and driving with a suspended license.

B.K. Trucking had been selected for and subjected to a compliance review by FMCSA in February based on its ranking in SafeStat; nevertheless, the compliance review did not disclose the serious problems with the driver. FMCSA’s compliance review identified company drivers as well as drivers that the owner claimed were leased operators, operating under their own authority.

The driver involved in the fatal crash was reported to be an owner-operator. Since compliance reviews procedures concentrate on company drivers, this driver was not included when license checks were conducted. As a result, this driver’s poor driving record was not uncovered during the B.K. Trucking compliance review. After the accident, B.K. Trucking was ordered out of service.

“Company drivers only are subject to CDL checks,” Scovall said. “The loophole is that (carriers) have independent contractors, they know those independent owner-operators aren’t subject to (government) compliance checks.” The carrier itself is responsible for the owner-operator’s driving record, Scovall testified.

“We are now instituting better training to our people to better understand leases,” Hill said in response. “The second thing, with companies with 20 drivers or less, we’re going to run checks on all those drivers, period.” DeFazio asked why FMCSA wouldn’t include carriers with more than 20 drivers. “90 percent of the carriers have 10 trucks or less,” said Hill, who explained that it’s a matter of manpower, and that it wouldn’t be practical to go to a large company such as Schneider National to check all of its drivers.

DeFazio quizzed Hill on how B.K. Trucking wasn’t placed out of service until after the fatal accident. “FMCSA is working to provide motor carriers with the information they need to check the records of their drivers,” Hill said.