Safety & Compliance

Truck Safety Gets a Seat at the Table

November 23, 1999

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Congress made itself clear: it’s time for the federal truck and bus safety program to stand on its own.
Legislation passed last week contains the most significant change in truck safety regulation in more than 30 years.
It creates within the Department of Transportation a Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration that puts truck and bus safety enforcement on the same organizational level as the other transportation modes. And it ends the era that began in 1966 when the old Bureau of Motor Carrier Safety was transferred from the Interstate Commerce Commission to DOT’s Federal Highway Administration.
A second part of the bill, which will be covered in a subsequent story, toughens safety requirements and enforcement.
FMCSA will open its doors on January 1, 2000. While it’s too soon to know exactly how the new agency will affect the daily lives of truckers, the potential impact is huge.
The administration is empowered by Congress with one priority: improving safety. Of course, that has been the priority at FHWA’s Office of Motor Carrier Safety, too. The difference is that FMCSA will have a political boss who reports directly to the Secretary of Transportation, while OMCS had a director who reported to the chief of the highway agency.
The new FMCSA administrator will be appointed by the president with the advice and consent of the Senate. He or she must have professional experience in motor carrier safety, the bill says.
The transportation community in Washington is abuzz with speculation about how the selection process will unfold. Insiders predict that Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater will have the biggest say in who gets nominated, but any candidate will have to pass muster with key Clinton administration constituencies, particularly organized labor.
Complicating the process is the gravitational pull of next year’s election. Vice President Albert Gore has been handling many Clinton appointments over the past year and as a presidential candidate has an obvious interest in the patronage of this appointment. Senator John McCain, R-AZ, whose presidential campaign is picking up momentum and who as Chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee was instrumental in the crafting of the safety bill, also will have a strong interest in the nomination.
Under the bill, the new administrator gets a deputy, appointed by the DOT secretary with the approval of the president.
The third position is the assistant administrator, or Chief Safety Officer. That position goes to a senior level bureaucrat appointed by the DOT secretary, again with the approval of the president.
The new administration has direct orders from Congress to work with both the Federal Highway Administration and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. It also has strict orders about staffing: the number of employees at headquarters is capped at its current level for the next fiscal year, except for employees who are transferred from FHWA. After that, Congress will review any requests for additional staff.
The new boss will have to give Congress a strategic plan for improving safety, focusing on four goals:
* Reduce the number and rates of accidents, injuries and fatalities.
* Improve enforcement and compliance programs.
* Identify and target high-risk carriers, vehicles and drivers for enforcement.
* Improve research.
The performance of the administrator, the deputy and the assistant administrator will be judged by whether or not they meet measurable standards applied to these goals.
The bill gives the DOT secretary authority to create an advisory committee of representatives from truck and bus management, drivers, safety advocates, manufacturers and enforcement officials, among others.
FMCSA will get an average of $38 million a year– a 70% increase over what was provided to OMCS by the Federal Highway Administration.
Those funds are for improving rulemaking, oversight, enforcement and safety research.
Safety research was a hot item during this year’s hearings on truck safety. CRASH President Joan Claybrook and others were outraged that OMCS was paying American Trucking Associations to conduct safety research, calling it a conflict of interest.
Under the bill, the DOT secretary must conduct a study to see if current federal rules are sufficient protection against conflict of interest, and if the rules will cause unreasonable delays in research.

Next: The Safety Provisions

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