Elephants, blind monks and the genius of FMCSA’s pointless advisory committee

Updated May 7, 2014

Blind_men_and_elephant3And so these men of Hindustan
Disputed loud and long,
Each in his own opinion
Exceeding stiff and strong,
Though each was partly in the right
And all were in the wrong.

From “The Blind Men and the Elephant” by John Godfrey Saxe

Leave it to the combined efforts of Congress and the federal bureaucracy to come up with a perfect vehicle for getting nothing done: the advisory committee system.

For a mere $250,000 per year, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration brings together many of the groups which usually have the agency pinned in a federal court crossfire and lets them face off with each other directly.

The real bargain for FMCSA is that the Motor Carrier Safety Advisory Committee is designed to be impeccably fair: Membership, selected by FMCSA, currently is “balanced among the sectors at seven members from industry, five from enforcement, five from safety (one of whom is the current chairman), and three from labor,” according to MCSAC’s latest “Membership Balance Plan.”

And since all are experts in their respective fields (according to the dictate of the charter: “specially qualified … based on their specialized experience, education, or training in commercial motor vehicle safety issues”), then all opinions are created equal.

Facts are generally optional – since, of course, if you’re on the committee, by definition you must know what you’re talking about.

The problem for trucking, however, is that “seven members from industry” doesn’t mean seven representatives of motor carriers. (The member list is here.) The American Trucking Associations has a seat, as does the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, along with a couple of fleet execs/managers.

So trucking large and small does have a voice. But school buses have representation, as do passenger carriers, and the legal counsel for a leading trucking insurance company also is included on the industry list. And that’s fine.

Yet a finer point: ATA and OOIDA have been known to express differences of opinion on trucking matters. And that’s fine, too: that’s trucking. We don’t expect consensus.

Still, while the regulated interests do have more representation than each of the other groups (by FMCSA’s measure), those seven pieces aren’t really interested in the same kind of pie.

Now consider that four of the five “safety” organizations with members on the committee routinely work closely together. Find one non-profit safety activist’s name on a press release or a lawsuit and you’ll usually find all of them: Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, Truck Safety Coalition, Parents Against Tired Truckers and Citizens for Reliable and Safe Highways.

The fifth safety member is the current chairman, Steve Owings of Road Safe America.

(Here’s a parenthetical bit of business I want to address, and I hate to get into it but … I routinely hear from the trucking side that safety advocates’ “expertise” is essentially limited to having been a victim, of having a loved one killed in a truck wreck. Indeed, the bios for all but one of the MCSAC committee’s safety members suggest that a tragedy prompted their engagement with trucking issues.

Here’s the thing: Over the years, I’ve had a number of discussions with Chairman Owings (who lost a college-aged son in a rear-end collision), and he’s unfailingly expressed his desire to work with industry, not against it. He just wants trucks to slow down (which the ATA supports) and for truck drivers to be paid more, worthy of the training they should have and of their highway safety responsibilities (which OOIDA supports).

So, I’m willing to give other non-truckers the benefit of the doubt: If they’ve put in the time to truly study the industry, I’d argue that their opinion is as informed as (and more objective than) that of the “my-way highway” truckers who seem to have entirely too much time to listen to talk radio and post political rants rather than to make well reasoned cases on behalf of their profession.)

Ultimately, though, this is a political issue.

OOIDA Executive Vice President Todd Spencer admits his service on MCSAC “is one of the most frustrating experiences of my life,” and that particular frustration is rooted in what he perceives to be “opinions that don’t necessarily come with any real expertise in the subject area.”

“These are opinions of people that generally have a vested interest in truck regulatory issues – I’m not even going to say truck safety,” Spencer told me recently. “So much of enforcement simply has no real basis in safety.”

As he sees it, MCSAC is another opportunity for OOIDA to relay “the perspective of people who operate trucks” to FMCSA.

“What do they do with that?” he asks, although I’m not sure if  it’s rhetorical. “I almost never get consensus from the committee, but I insist on those perspectives being on the record, even if it is a minority view. That’s my job.”

On the other hand, Owings, the MCSAC chair, calls committee leadership “an interesting assignment” – though he’s quick to suggest that he doesn’t run the committee. His goal is to facilitate “reasonably even representation” in committee discussions and recommendations.

“As you’d expect, we have pretty lively debates on most topics, but I hope we’re providing valuable insights to the administrator,” he told me, early in his tenure.

He maintains that leadership from “the safety advocacy community” is appropriate, and important.

“The number one goal of the DOT is safety. The mission of the FMCSA is all about safety. I’d hope that the safety advocacy community and I, in particular, bring a safety-centered focus to things,” Owings says. “We don’t have a dollar bill in any of the debates – it’s all about safety and that’s the way it should be.”

And that’s always an issue: Regulators shouldn’t be perceived as giving the regulated industry too much influence over oversight. On the other hand, trucking continues to argue that the industry is more safe than ever  – so regulators should slow down.

“We try to find common ground, and there are ways to do that,” Owings says. “Everybody feels passionate about their views as far as the best ways to achieve safety, and everyone on the committee understands that. They’re all trying to achieve maximum safety for all the right reasons. The fact that we have different opinions is just part of the debate.”

I totally support open debate, though I prefer it to be informed debate. But I’m an elitist: I wish people knew what they were talking about.

And I’m bipartisan in my questioning how well informed some members of Congress are. Sit through a hearing or two if you want to worry about the future of the U.S.

But that’s why, intentionally impotent as it should be, MCSAC might actually matter: When Congress can’t tie the nation’s policy shoes, bureaucracy – guided by an administration that might or might not care about trucking (again, a bipartisan generalization on my part) – can do whatever it wants.

And Administrator Ferro will certainly cite MCSAC recommendations when they suit FMCSA.

So, in our next discussion, let’s look at some of these recent MCSAC recommendations and assess them according to a standard suggested in a May 5 ASECTT newsletter aimed at rallying support for a push to get FMCSA to reconsider CSA:

Remember the three political tools which bureaucracies use to overcome valid dissent: demonize, ignore, and change the subject.