I wasn't surprised to hear of Anne Ferro's decision to step down as administrator of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, nor was I heartbroken over the announcement. I am, however, very uneasy about who may become her successor.
Almost from the day she took office, Ferro became a lightning rod for all the ill will on both sides of trucking's fence. Industry welcomed her nomination, assuming that her experience as president of the Maryland Motor Truck Association might bring a realistic view of trucking's needs when crafting regulation and policy. Labor and truck safety interests were adamantly opposed to her nomination for exactly the same reason.
During her four-and-a-half-year tenure, opinions of Ferro have shifted nearly 180 degrees from the day she received her Senate approval.
Flashback to 2009
In a letter written by Teamsters General President James Hoffa, the union condemned President Obama's nominee, saying, "We firmly believe that the individual appointed to this agency should not come from the very industry the agency is required to regulate, especially given the trucking industry's positions on these health and safety issues," the letter said. "Ms. Ferro consistently supports the trucking industry party-line on motor carrier issues in opposition to positions taken by consumer, health and safety groups, truck crash victims and their families and the hard-working men and women who drive trucks."
At the time, American Trucking Associations President and CEO Bill Graves had this to say about Ferro's appointment: “Ms. Ferro’s extensive experience in promoting driver, vehicle and highway safety will serve the nation well. As administrator of the Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration she developed a reputation as a tough, but fair regulator.”
Even the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association -- which several weeks ago penned a letter to Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, asking Ferro be removed from the position -- supported Ferro's nomination because of her diverse background in trucking, safety and regulatory circles.
“[That] should give her a broad perspective and overview of the industry which could be beneficial both to truckers and to the agency which she would represent in terms of advocating policies which would impact the industry,” said OOIDA Executive Vice President Todd Spencer at the time.
I think it's fair to say, that in final months of her leadership, she had lost a great deal of that industry support, and her lack of support from the safety groups, while certainly stronger than it had been when she took office, was still working against her.
Leaning too far?
In my opinion, Ferro leaned too far to the safety advocate side of most arguments, which given the mandate of the agency wouldn't be unexpected, but she went there without hard and incontrovertible data to support her assertions. That left her and the FMCSA open to criticism from industry and safety experts that appeared to have stronger data indicating she was wrong.
In her early days, she was criticized by the safety community for being too close and too cozy with trucking. In the end, many in trucking had turned against her for not heeding valid concerns about the implementation of the Compliance, Safety and Accountability program, and remaining totally inflexible on the inexcusably thin reasons for altering an hours of service regime that seemed to be working quite well and for allowing various bits of rulemaking to languish far too long.
To her credit, Anne Ferro probably did more to reach out to industry, drivers especially, with the many listening sessions she held at various truck shows and other events. She certainly seemed to want to know what truckers were thinking, but she never acted on what truckers were telling her. With perhaps the notable exception of changing the 34-hour restart rule.
She never responded to the endless calls for a bit of flexibility in the rule. She ignored ages-old calls for better training for entry-level drivers. And it wasn't until very late in her game that her agency finally responded to calls for fairness in the DataQ process for challenging citations that did not result in conviction or forfeiture. That was probably too little, too late
And then came her ludicrous call for zero truck-related fatalities. I think that did more to undermine her credibility with trucking than almost anything she had said before. She defended the idea saying “At the end of the day I wouldn’t call it ideology. I think it’s appropriate to call it a stretch goal, an aspirational goal, because we really shouldn’t suggest that we can explain and justify the fatalities and serious injury crashes that happen today.”
Justify? Probably not, but explain? Certainly. When a goodly proportion of crashes are the "other driver's" fault, you can't hold trucking entirely accountable -- a fact that FMCSA has continued to ignore despite trucking's calls for a thorough reexamination of the agency's crash weighting policy under CSA.
Eventually, the industry did an end-run around Ferro in early June, taking its concerns about the 34-hour restart to Congress for resolution. Published reports of various committee meetings suggest Ferro was none too impressed with ATA's move to have Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) offer an amendment to a bill to have that provision reversed and studied. I think that sent a pretty strong signal that ATA no longer had any faith in Anne Ferro's leadership of the agency put in place to regulate trucking.
She was a lame duck administrator from that day forward.
In Ferro's Defense
In fairness to Anne Ferro, I'm inclined to believe that trucking may have been much worse off than it is now with any FMCSA administrator other than her. Her appointment was political, and as such, she did the White House's bidding under Secretaries of Transportation Ray LaHood and later Anthony Foxx.
With her background and understanding of trucking from her days as president of the MMTA, I think Ferro probably threw herself onto more hand grenades than we'll ever know. I think when President Obama nominated Ferro to the post, he knew from the start that his agenda would be very unpopular with trucking, so who better to administer the bad medicine than one of our own.
I think in some ways Ferro's tenure was doomed to fail because of the industry's expectations of her, regardless of the marching orders she was getting from the White House. She simply couldn't win.
Anne Ferro took control of FMCSA in late 2009, preceding a very challenging period for carriers and drivers -- an economy that just wouldn't turn over, engines that wouldn't stay running, a shortage of freight in the early years and a shortage of drivers later, and more. Layered on top of that were an seeming endless stream of rules and rulemaking initiatives that offered no relief from the challenges, but instead added to the cost of trucking while providing little in the way of what few people would call sensible, cost-effective regulations that would help make trucking any safer than it already was.
Ferro did not enjoy a lot of support from industry when it came to some of the more contentious aspects of the CSA program. While most agree the Compliance, Safety, Accountability enforcement initiative was a great step forward from the previous safety rating determination process, there were many serious problems with it that FMCSA simply refused to address in a timely manner.
I don't think you can pin all those failings on Anne Ferro personally, but her popularity -- and to some extent, her credibility -- suffered because of them.
Going forward, I'm quite fearful of who the next nominee will be. President Obama is no longer worried about reelection, but in establishing a legacy, so his nominee is likely to push even harder for changes that would establish him as the president that finally put the trucking industry in its place.
And given the recent spate of high-profile fatal collisions involving trucks, I have to believe the confirmation hearings that will follow the nomination will look favorably on someone who promises fast action to reduce crashes and improve safety. Not that trucking could be seriously opposed to such a mandate, but it all comes down to how the administration chooses to go about it.
It would not surprise me in the least to see a name from the so-called advocate community rise to the top of the list. Were someone in that position to be confirmed, I think trucking would have much to be concerned about.
Ferro Presided Over Landmark Safety Rules, by Washington Editor Oliver Patton