The people who enforce the truck safety rules have a big problem. They can't keep up with the trucks and drivers now on the road, and those numbers are only going to grow.
There will be no funding windfall from Congress, so the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration is looking to do more with what it's got. Among the solutions the agency is considering: use wireless telemetry to inspect trucks as they go down the highway.
The agency reports that it has successfully tested the concept of using dedicated short-range communications to transfer data about key safety items such as driver identification, log information, CDL status and vehicle condition from a moving truck to a roadside facility. It is now moving into a pilot program to see how the system handles more vehicles and other wireless technologies.
The agency is betting that it can use wireless technology to dramatically increase the number of inspections without bringing commerce to a halt. More inspections will create a deterrent that will markedly improve safety, says Jeff Loftus, transportation specialist in the FMCSA Office of Analysis, Research & Technology.
Loftus uses an analysis of two different types of inspections to prove his point. Enforcement personnel conduct far fewer safety inspections than they do weight inspections - three million a year compared to 177 million a year. The results of that imbalance speak volumes: the violation rate for safety inspections is 73 percent, netting an out-of-service rate of 25 percent, versus a 0.29 percent violation rate for weight inspections.
Loftus acknowledged that the safety inspections numbers are skewed because the inspections are targeted rather than random. Still, he says, the likelihood of a weight inspection is vastly greater than a safety inspection, which creates a deterrence that shows up in the violation rate.
This observation prompted the agency's hypothesis that if it could conduct as many safety inspections as weight inspections, it could have a similar deterrent effect.
FMCSA Administrator John Hill, a proponent of the voluntary use of technology to improve safety, said, "With this technology we could probably do 170 million safety inspections a year."
Hill and Loftus spoke in a webinar on the project held in November. They said the agency and its partners successfully concluded a "proof of concept" test in Tennessee last August, in which data on a truck's onboard computer was downloaded to a receiving station as the truck passed by at varying speeds. The data also was downloaded to a police cruiser as it was parked and as it trailed the truck on the highway.
The transferred "Safety Data Message Set" included several types of information: identifiers such as the driver's license, the vehicle identification number, the carrier's DOT number and shipping document information; vehicle status, including tire pressure and weight, condition of the lighting and whether or not the driver had his seat belt buckled; and hours of service status from an electronic onboard recorder.
In the future, the agency expects to be able to expand that list with data about the truck's brakes, exhaust system, steering and suspension, among other things. In addition, back-office data such as the truck's inspection history, insurance coverage and driver history should be available to the trooper on the scene.
Giving the trooper the information to enforce the safety rules on the spot is only part of the concept. The data from the truck would flow to a back-office system for verification, archiving and further distribution. It would go to various enforcement offices where it could, for example, be used to update the carrier's and driver's safety rating or to issue a citation. It also would go to the carrier, where it could be checked for accuracy and used to address safety issues, and to the driver.
The agency sees this as one piece of a new "operational model" for truck and bus safety enforcement that it wants to start putting in place in 2010 - the agency refers to this as the Comprehensive Safety Analysis 2010 project.
The current approach, which focuses on Compliance Reviews that are labor-intensive and time-consuming, cannot keep up, the agency has said. In the new approach, the agency's determination of a carrier's safety fitness would be independent of the Compliance Review and would be based on performance information such as traffic, hours of service or license violations, improper maintenance or a pattern of frequent accidents.
The key to making this work will be getting accurate and timely data, such as that from wireless roadside inspections.
The "proof of concept" was the first phase in the development of this new system. In the second phase, scheduled for the next couple of years, the agency plans to run a pilot test in Tennessee and perhaps other states as well, using as many as a dozen vehicles. It will look at alternate technologies, and at ways to add information to the Safety Data Message Set, such as brake adjustment and tire pressure.
There will be several key elements to the pilot, Loftus said. One will be to figure out how the data will support the new systems envisioned by CSA 2010. A second will be ensuring that the data transfer is secure and carriers' privacy is protected.
Also, Loftus said he is not convinced that dedicated short-range communications through transponders - the kind of technology now used for automated toll payment systems and the PrePass truck weight preclearance system - is necessarily the way to go. He said the pilot will look at geofencing systems that automatically collect data from the driver's GPS cell phone or an onboard satellite communications system.
If the pilot test works, the agency plans to move on to a field operational test in about 2010. That test, also scheduled for two years, will include multiple traffic corridors and regulatory jurisdictions and up to 100 vehicles.
A major issue, Loftus said, will be to get the industry to buy into the program.
"We really have to demonstrate that there are real benefits here," he said.
It is reasonable to believe that there would be significant safety benefits, he said, and he assumes that the ability to save time and improve management with the wireless inspection data would be attractive to carriers. But he wants to learn more about how carriers will look at the cost-benefit analysis, and will pursue that line of inquiry during the pilot test.
The cost-benefit question leads to a key point: if the system proves to work, will the agency require all trucks to have the necessary onboard equipment, or will it offer incentives for voluntary participation.
The early feedback from the industry is optimism tempered with caution.
"(Any) technology that streamlines or facilitates safety and compliance is a good thing for the industry," said Dan Murray, vice president of research at the American Transportation Research Institute. ATRI, the research arm of American Trucking Associations, has been participating in the wireless inspection project.
The concept would make life easier for safe carriers, increase targeting of marginal carriers and cut operating costs for carriers that comply with the rules, Murray said. He believes that if it proves out, carriers will be eager to sign on.
"But if the technology is being used to increase compliance and regulation rather than streamline and facilitate, we need some kind of benefit-cost assessment on new regulation and compliance," he said.
The industry needs more time to get familiar with what the agency is doing, he added. "We are in the very early stages of awareness. I think we need three to four years to understand how this fits into the safety and operating scheme of the industry, and then we can make some educated decisions about it."
Murray is bullish on the agency's CSA 2010 initiative - "one of the most exciting opportunities in the future for integrating productivity and safety," he said. "As a concept it is phenomenal."