Some FMCSA Staff Say Compliance Review Quotas Compromise Safety
March 03, 2001
A personnel dispute within the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration is spilling out into the open – although one side is firing from anonymous ambush.
An unnamed writer, claiming to speak for some employees of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, has charged that Assistant Administrator Julie Anna Cirillo set performance goals that force safety investigators to lower their standards.
In a letter to Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta, with copies to Congress, other government agencies and transportation groups, the writer asks for an investigation. The writer – or writers – refused to identify themselves, claiming that Cirillo has threatened "personnel action" against those who do not go along with her program.
Department of Transportation officials had no comment.
Typically an anonymous complaint does not merit news coverage. This letter, however, resurrects an issue that became a matter of public record at congressional hearings last March.
Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.), who was assessing the progress of the brand-new agency, said he had received anonymous letters from FMCSA staff complaining that the quality of compliance reviews was falling because the work load was too high.
One of Cirillo's first moves as chief of the agency was to order safety investigators to do more compliance reviews – to maintain an average of four to five reviews per month. She did this in response to strong criticism from Wolf and others that the agency was not tough enough on truckers who broke the rules.
At that hearing Cirillo said that three safety investigators had been placed on performance improvement programs, but defended the quality of the reviews.
The seven-page letter details a litany of complaints. It says some agency personnel were shocked by the news that they would have to increase their workload to meet the new compliance review quota, without a chance to raise questions or dissent. Because of the additional work, the letter says, some field employees are no longer motivated to get extra training, participate in public outreach and prepare enforcement cases. "Also gone is agency morale."
According to the letter, the review quota has created three groups of safety investigators: those who have reduced the quality of their work in order to meet the quotas; those who have kept up the quality of their work by putting in overtime for which they are not compensated; and those who are able to keep up quality and quantity without extra hours because their work load is lighter.
Among those receiving copies of the letter was Daphne Izer, co-chairperson of Parents Against Tired Truckers. Izer said she has been hearing similar complaints for some time. "Safety investigators are frustrated because they want to do a good job but in some cases cannot."
Another recipient, Stephen Campbell, executive director of the Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance, said he finds it difficult to respond to the letter because it is anonymous. With respect to Cirillo, he said, "I think she's done a fair job, to be honest about it. Certainly she has been fair to CVSA and its members. She has listened to us and been open to us."
It is difficult to assess the safety impact of the change in Compliance Review policy, since that is just one of many changes in FMCSA enforcement practices over the past couple of years.
By the most important measure, however, truck safety has been improving: There were three fewer truck-related fatalities in 1998 compared to 1997, and 33 fewer in 1999 compared to 1998. Whether that is attributable to better enforcement, better performance by the industry, or sheer luck is hard to say.
In an interview last month, Cirillo claimed the credit for FMCSA. "The people of this agency . . . they're the ones who did the work, they're the ones who have the fatalities going down."
In a separate interview, FMCSA enforcement team leader Michael Lamm said that the burden of four to five reviews a month depends on what’s entailed in each review. Five one-truck owner-operators a month is not a problem, he said. But if a company is not willing to share information, or if the review is more complicated, it is harder to meet the goal.
In any event, according to Lamm, quality should not be affected. As a safety investigator based in Atlanta, Lamm said, he always met the goal, even when the review was followed by enforcement action.
Joe Muscaro, a 25-year veteran with agency who now serves as administrator for the Eastern Service Area, said that the quality of the review shows up in court. "If the quality were poor, we would be losing cases," he said. "That’s not happening."
In fact, he said, quality has gotten better because the agency has more data and better data. "It really depends on the technique used by the individual investigator."
Besides Mineta, PATT and CVSA, the letter was copied to Reps. Harold Rogers (R-Ky.) and Frank Wolf (R-Va.); Kenneth Mead, inspector general of DOT; David Walker, comptroller general of the General Accounting Office; Steven Cohen, director of the Office of Personnel Management; and Walter McCormick, president of the American Trucking Associations.