GAO recommendations would improve motor carrier safety

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The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) recently made a group of recommendations to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) that would modernize what the organization collects in terms of complaint data as well as make it more accessible and usable for the public.

The FMCSA maintains complaint data – related to safety, like speeding or reckless driving, or to problems like unfair business practices – submitted against large commercial truck, moving and bus companies via its National Consumer Complaint Database (NCCDB). GAO posits that its guidance for its staff is unclear and that it makes some but not all complaint data available to the public. GAO says its 14 recommendations could help FMCSA improve its response to safety and other emerging concerns and improve transparency and collaboration with industry partners.

After speaking with Stephen Ritzler, team lead of trucking and logistics at insurance provider CoverWallet, these are a few of the recommendations that stand out:

• Recommendation No. 7: The FMCSA administrator should ensure FMCSA updates its complaint review guidance to require that FMCSA staff and managers enable auto-notifications for complaints for which they are responsible.

This would accelerate the feedback that owner operators get from complaints. Currently, there aren’t many standards, if any, that require the FMCSA to note who made the complaint, when it was made or the matter at hand. There are several recommendations that address these points, but Ritzler said No. 7 pertains to timeliness of feedback so companies can take action to improve.

“On the one hand, we have to think about the visibility of having a complaint about your business out in the public, but the flip side of that is how can you acknowledge and react and adapt to something if you're not made aware of it,” he said. “This is going to speed up that process for the trucking small business owner, and it's going to give them the ability to take ownership of that feedback and leverage it to make their business safer.”

• Recommendation No. 11: The FMCSA administrator should ensure the NCCDB website contains information that is appropriately accessible for users with limited English proficiency.

Ritzler said he loves this recommendation because it would optimize the website for non-native English speakers.

“That's a huge, really significant part of America's owner operators … We have a lot of immigrants and folks that are non-native English speaking in the industry, and they're at a disadvantage when it comes to understanding the compliance language that goes around how they're being measured for safety,” he said. “The more we can do to give them the tools to succeed, the safer the roads will be.”

• Recommendation No. 12: The FMCSA administrator should ensure the NCCDB website has performance standards such as goals and measures and that the website is assessed against those performance standards.

Ritzler said the idea is the FMCSA would set benchmarks so it could use this complaint system as a performance management tool to drive improved safety.

“It'll be really interesting to see the shape that takes, and I don't know that there's precedent for that in the current legacy models so that seems like an overall improvement,” he said.

These are GAO’s other recommendations:

• The FMCSA administrator should make data on all categories of complaints available to the public, as appropriate, and in line with DOT's data management policy. (Recommendation 1)

• The FMCSA administrator should ensure FMCSA updates its complaint review guidance

-      to define each category of complaint (i.e., ADA, coercion, harassment, hazardous materials, household goods, safety and other commercial complaints) and link allegations to these categories. (Recommendation 2)

-       to define the characteristics a complaint must have, such as who submitted the complaint and the nature of the incident, to qualify as a motorist complaint. (Recommendation 3)

-       to define the complaint status options and provide instructions on when to use the complaint status and activity type options. (Recommendation 4)

-       to provide clear and comprehensive procedures on how to review all categories of complaints, such as step-by-step instructions or flow charts. (Recommendation 5)

-       to require that key determinations are documented in complaint case files. (Recommendation 6)

-       to require managers to review reports on the status of complaints as part of their oversight of complaint review. (Recommendation 8)

• The FMCSA administrator should ensure the NCCDB website is consistently mobile-friendly. (Recommendation 9)

• The FMCSA administrator should ensure the NCCDB website appropriately targets key audiences, including by defining acronyms and technical terms, and providing more detailed or relevant examples of complaints that may be filed by truck and bus drivers. (Recommendation 10)

• The FMCSA administrator should ensure the NCCDB website is tested with external users on a regular basis. (Recommendation 13)

• The FMCSA Administrator should develop an outreach plan for its NCCDB website that aligns with leading practices for outreach. (Recommendation 14)

All of these recommendations have good reason for being on this list, but should the FMCSA decide to enact a handful versus all, there are some I believe the organization should give priority. Namely are the recommendations that suggest the FMCSA updates its complaint review guidance when it comes to defining each category of complaint and the nature of the incident.

These companies need to know the contents of a complaint – even if they don’t include who made the complaint – in order to use that feedback to make adjustments and improve safety.

FMCSA previously kept all public information confidential on complaints against truck companies, bus companies or electronic logging device providers. But if the organization’s goal is to reduce crashes, injuries and deaths involving large trucks and buses, it should most definitely consider these recommendations to modernize its NCCDB. It can’t meet its goal to help motor carriers improve safety if it maintains an outdated approach.

According to the GAO website, the status of these recommendations are “Open,” meaning the FMCSA has not taken or planned any actions to satisfy the recommendations.

Angel Coker Jones is a senior editor of Commercial Carrier Journal, covering the technology, safety and business segments. In her free time, she enjoys hiking and kayaking, horseback riding, foraging for medicinal plants and napping. She also enjoys traveling to new places to try local food, beer and wine. Reach her at [email protected].