Chips aren’t CHIPS

Pork is popular, and taxes aren’t. For years, the federal government – regardless of the party in power in either the White House or Congress – has tried to find ways to spend more money on unnecessary things that people notice and less on necessary things that they don’t.

Oversight of the motor carrier industry is a case in point. The Bush administration submitted last month its final proposed federal budget, and its proposal for the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration includes no increase in activities – just inflation-related adjustments in current programming. Perhaps you consider it a good and welcome development that FMCSA isn’t looking to beef up enforcement activities in the near term. In the long run, however, the federal government shows no signs of backing away from enforcement.

Instead, what FMCSA envisions is fairly aggressive migration of resources from people to computers. In theory, this is a smart move. The current enforcement regime relies heavily on on-site compliance reviews. With tens of thousands of motor carriers, FMCSA and its partners can audit only a tiny fraction. Although FMCSA uses SafeStat to identify high-risk carriers, safety problems can fester for months or even years until SafeStat scores deteriorate to the point where inspectors feel compelled to drop by for an audit.

FMCSA’s planned Comprehensive Safety Analysis 2010 is supposed to address this shortcoming by assessing safety and compliance data on a monthly basis and identifying carriers and drivers for early intervention. But the idea, while welcome, is hardly a perfect solution. The new system would be just as sensitive to flaws in data and methodology as SafeStat is today. FMCSA might argue that’s not a big problem because rather than get a full-blown audit, motor carriers would have an opportunity to address concerns at an earlier stage.

But for the CSA 2010 approach to work efficiently, FMCSA must automate its responses to the monthly data reviews. Otherwise, the agency would remain overwhelmed by the sheer volume of interaction. It would just trade labor-intensive compliance reviews for an exponentially larger number of phone calls, e-mails and other human-initiated communications. But if the monthly reviews are based on inaccurate or biased data, then automated communication will lead either to numerous ongoing instances of unfair results or a disruptive and time-consuming appeals process as motor carriers and drivers question misplaced demands for corrective action. The most likely scenario is a little bit of both.

FMCSA’s vision for wireless roadside inspections creates further opportunities for errors. The agency someday wants trucks that pass inspection stations or are pulled over by law enforcement officers to upload data on such items as Department of Transportation and VIN numbers, hours of service, commercial driver’s license number, tire condition, performance of the brake and lighting systems, and fault codes on fuel systems, transmissions, air systems and electronic systems. The concern isn’t that this automated information will be less accurate than handwritten forms completed by humans. But FMCSA also must ensure that a human makes the final call on how to handle deviations from the norm. In some cases, it might make more sense – at least from an operational standpoint – for the driver to continue rather than being placed out of service on the basis of a sensor reading that shows the equipment to be minimally out of compliance.

The optimal solution surely is not to multiply the number of auditors and roadside inspectors – even if the funds and willing personnel were available. The CSA 2010 concept is sound and reasonable, but bureaucrats must be realistic. An extended transition period of overlapping regimes is essential. If FMCSA expects to flip a switch on some future date and replace the current environment with a technology-driven regime, the result will be confusion, frustration and misused resources. And FMCSA must preserve opportunities for reasonable and prompt human intervention.