FMCSA Turns Teacher With New Webinar Series

Everybody knows that the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration writes and enforces all the safety rules. It's the top cop when it comes to such regs. But the agency has added a new job title to its repertoire: teacher.

May 2007, - Feature

by Oliver Patton, Former Washington Editor - Also by this author

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And now it's setting up web-based seminars so carriers that are using cutting-edge safety devices can tell other carriers about their experience.

Last month, in the first of a series of "webinars," the agency brought together representatives of two fleets, Maverick Transportation and Cargo Transporters, to talk about lane departure warning systems. Both have the devices installed in most of their trucks and were eager to relate their experience to an audience of more than 180, including about 150 trucking executives.

"This is a new approach (from FMCSA)," said Dan Murray, vice president of research for the American Transportation Research Institute, which is helping the agency produce the webinars. ATRI is the research arm of the American Trucking Associations.

FMCSA has always been an agency that tries to regulate through cooperation as well as enforcement, but the idea of promoting safety technologies through webinars is new. It arises from a conviction among the agency's top officials that systems such as lane departure warning, collision avoidance with adaptive cruise control and rollover stability can take the industry to a new level of safety.

Such devices give drivers an edge in controlling the truck by helping them compensate for errors or inattention, says agency Administrator John Hill.

Maverick and Cargo Transporters are representative of a cadre of trucking companies that have decided to invest in innovative technologies to improve both safety and their bottom lines. The webinars are an attempt to bring these carriers together with their peers to spread information about these technologies.

Murray said that the webinar planners give great deference to vendors, but they believe the message packs more of a punch when it's delivered by carriers that are actually using the devices. That seemed to be the case when Dean Newell of Maverick Transportation and Jerry Waddell of Cargo Transporters described their experiences with the Iteris lane departure warning system.

Both are sold on the system. Newell has it on 1,200 of Maverick's trucks and is adding it to another 200. Waddell has it on 386 trucks – 90 percent of Cargo Transporters' fleet – and has been using it for more than a million miles.

As the name suggests, the system alerts the driver when he's accidentally crossing out of his lane. It does not go off at speeds less than 35 mph, or when the turn signal is activated. A video camera attached to the windshield watches the road and feeds the information to a computer that interprets position, velocity and heading to determine if the truck is where it belongs.

The technology addresses a significant safety problem, according to Amy Houser, the FMCSA engineer in charge of the webinar program. Accidents arising from lane departures are numerous and serious. Houser said there are some 18,000 single-vehicle roadway departure accidents each year. This kind of incident can easily lead to a rollover, which puts both the driver and the cargo at great risk.

Newell and Waddell were in accord on the key points. Driver reaction has been positive; the device does not intrude except when there is problem, and it requires no action other than a correction. Both companies introduce their drivers to the device with a road test and demonstration. Between the two companies there has been only one instance of a driver tampering with the device.

Cargo Transporters has the device installed as standard equipment by the truck manufacturer. Maverick retrofits the devices – a process that takes about 90 minutes, said Newell. Maintenance is minimal, both said, although Newell noted he's had a few problems with the system's settings.

Both men started off thinking that the system would protect drivers from mistakes caused by fatigue, but they have since decided that the real issue is distraction. Waddell cautioned listeners to take fatigue out of the message to drivers – it sends the wrong signal, he said.

The payoff on the devices, which cost between $750 and $1,450 per unit, is hard to quantify because it can only be described as the absence of an accident that may have happened. Both Newell and Waddell are convinced of the benefit, however.

Asked by a participant for a return-on-investment analysis, Newell said that although he could come up with one, he has not done so because the investment is "essentially a gut-check: It's worked for me."

Waddell said his fleet has experienced only two runoff accidents since the system was installed. In one instance, he said, the device probably saved his driver's life because the truck was drifting onto the shoulder where another truck was parked.

For both companies, the purchasing decision was as much about ethics as it was about money. Newell described taking the issue to the Maverick board and being asked, "Is this the right thing to do for safety?"

Waddell's perspective is that off-road accidents, in particular, are "an overall nightmare." They create a bad perception for the industry and the company – a truck has gone out of control. Also, they are especially costly due to the danger to the driver and others, loss of equipment, towing and cleanup charges and high exposure if you have to go to court.

Waddell said it is astounding to him that anyone would question the investment. "Ask yourself how long it would take to pay for a $100,000 loss when your margin is 10 cents a mile."

He reversed the cost-benefit question: "Can you defend your decision not to use a lane departure warning system?"

On a larger scale than the experience of these two fleets, there are data indicating that the device is effective. An FMCSA field test has demonstrated up to a 23 percent reduction in roadway departure accidents for trucks using the devices, Houser said.

That data is not strong enough to make an industry-wide conclusion, however, Murray said. He described that test as more controlled than naturalistic, and said the devices need to be tested across a broad spectrum of conditions and operations before a definitive assessment can be made. The agency is studying the design of such a test, he said.

The industry's growing interest in these technologies is motivated in part by changes in the insurance market. Rates went up sharply after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Murray said that ATA's insurance survey showed 40 percent to 50 percent increases in insurance premiums for good carriers. Rates have since stabilized, but to offset the increases, more carriers have switched to self insurance or high-deductible coverage.

The average cost of lane departure accidents falls within the range of these carriers' new, higher deductibles, Murray said. And when the cost of an accident is out-of-pocket, rather than part of a complex insurance equation, the benefit of a new safety technology is plain to see, he said.

"So given that environment, it does make these devices much more palatable in terms of out-of-pocket costs," Murray said.

The question of whether insurance companies should grant credits to fleets that use these devices is more complex, Murray said. The insurance companies say they need three to five years of actuarial data, which does not yet exist, to separate the effectiveness of the device from, say driver performance, he said.

Meanwhile, FMCSA Administrator Hill wants to see incentives of another sort. "We need a national policy of incentives that really would provide carriers the opportunity to benefit from and really be drawn into the productive safety investment of these technologies," he said.

He envisions two types of incentives: first, some sort of credit for making the investment, and second, some relief from agency regulations for carriers that do.

The safety agency has scheduled two more webinars. One on stability control systems was scheduled for May 14; another on forward collision warning systems will be held in July. For more information contact Amy Houser at [email protected]

For more information on lane departure warning systems and other safety technologies, go to the FMCSA web site: Click on Facts & Research, then on Product Guides under Office of Research and Analysis.

Congressional resistance may slow down the Bush administration's plan to permit Mexican trucking companies to provide long-distance service into the United States.

The Department of Transportation intends to start admitting a chosen group of up to 100 Mexican trucking companies in a one-year pilot project. The pilot also will allow U.S. carriers to send trucks into Mexico – but not until Mexico can come up with application protocols for U.S. carriers.

The plan is billed as a test of DOT's system for ensuring that Mexican carriers operate safely in the U.S., but opponents in Congress have seized on the unequal timing between Mexican and U.S. access as a way to slow things down.

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., introduced legislation that withholds funding for the pilot unless access for U.S. trucks to Mexico is simultaneous with access of Mexican trucks into the U.S., and until DOT puts the pilot project up for public comment.

Similar legislation was introduced in the House by Reps. Nancy Boyda, D-Kan., James Oberstar, D-Minn., and Peter DeFazio, D-Ore.

While the outcome of these moves is not certain, it is clear that powerful voices in Congress are concerned about the DOT pilot project.

John Hill, chief of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, said early in April that he does not yet have an answer about commencement of the pilot project.

It's going to be a tough year, with the economy in neutral and truck sales on the skids, but Freightliner President Chris Patterson said he's focused on the recovery.

This year's slowdown will be the start of an upturn, he told heavy-duty manufacturers gathered at this year's Mid-America Trucking Show. "Trust me, the dawn will come again."

Patterson spelled out Freightliner's pre-dawn agenda: a new conventional tractor scheduled to be introduced this month, a new heavy-duty engine platform to debut in August, and laying the foundation in Washington for financial relief in anticipation of "another profound increase" in the price of trucks in 2010 due to the next round of clean air standards.

"It's the right time to bring a product to market," Patterson said, with respect to the new tractor. He did not offer details, but said the tractor, in the works for three years, is designed to help carriers control costs.

The new engine platform (currently referred to by the acronym HDEP) will be introduced as a Detroit Diesel in North America. Ultimately, Patterson said, it will become the Mercedes Benz engine in Europe and Latin America, and the Mitsubishi Fuso in Asia.

This engine platform will eventually replace all of the four engines in the DaimlerChrysler portfolio.

"We have three inline sixes in the heavy-duty space, as well as one V configuration that comes in six or eight cylinders, all crammed into the 350- to 550-horsepower range. It makes no sense."

For the near term, the new platform will be offered alongside current heavy-duty engines. "Once 2010 comes, these workhorses will be put to rest, and this will be the engine on which our fortunes largely depend."

Patterson said the industry faces a host of challenges this year, but performance of the EPA-compliant 2007 engines is not one of them. The 2004 emissions rule was a "great educator," he said. It taught Freightliner to put a lot more money into testing and validation.

In addition to its own on-highway tests, Freightliner has put a lot of the engines in service with its customers. "We have done very, very well at convincing our customer base that the engines are reliable and will provide service to the same standards that they have come to expect from the outgoing designs."

EPA regulations have thrown a wrench into the natural cycle of the truck market, but that's not all bad, Patterson says: Unlike market fluctuations, the regulatory cycle can be seen years in advance. "We know that in 2010 we are going to see another profound increase in the cost of technology necessary to clean the engines up, and that that's going to have an effect on purchasing patterns."

Freightliner supports the clean air rules, but Patterson is concerned that current federal policy works against the rules' objective because it creates an incentive to buy before the deadline. "This is bad public policy. (It) causes people to buy the so-called dirty old engine, which will remain in service for 20 years."

The benefits of cleaner air are distributed across the country, yet the costs are borne by truck manufacturers, their suppliers, dealers, distributors and employees, Patterson said. It is a point keenly felt by manufacturers that have been forced to lay off workers this year because of the drop in sales.

Patterson said that he and colleagues in the OEM community have been working in Washington to craft a relief package. Relief of this type is not easily gained in Congress. The key challenge is that an adequate package could be quite expensive – as much as $1 billion. That kind of loss to the federal treasury creates pressure for a corresponding gain. On the plus side, Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, has expressed support.

Patterson also talked about the competitive outlook. The North American heavy-duty market is fully consolidated, he said. "It's not really practical for any of us to buy the other," because it could trigger antitrust objections.

The midrange sector, though, is ripe for consolidation, he said. For one thing, Freightliner will have to look to itself: "There will have to be some consolidation within the Freightliner family in order for the Mitsubishi Fuso brand to continue profitably."

Patterson expects this year's turnaround to begin a little later than usual – some time after the typical third-period acceleration. "Definitely by the end of this year we're going to see a surge in orders. There's just no way around it."

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