Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater is committing the Department of Transportation to an ambitious safety action plan, with the objective of reducing truck-related highway fatalities by 50% over the next 10 years.
The action plan, which, among other things, increases truck safety enforcement, focuses DOT on a difficult but achievable goal, he said at a press conference yesterday in Washington, DC. Politically, the plan can be seen as a move to forestall efforts to shift the Office of Motor Carrier and Highway Safety out of the Federal Highway Administration.
For the time being, Slater wants to keep OMCHS where it is, rather than move it into a new Motor Carrier Safety Administration or the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. He did say, however, that he has not definitely ruled out the idea of a new safety administration. "Over time, we'll deal with the organizational structure," he said.
DOT Inspector General Kenneth Mead supported Slater's approach. "In this town, organizational issues don't get decided overnight," he said.
American Trucking Assns. President Walter McCormick applauded Slater for not suggesting a move to NHTSA. The trucking association still supports a separate Motor Carrier Safety Administration, though, McCormick said.
Yesterday's announcement made Slater the first decision-maker to show his cards in the political struggle over OMCHS jurisdiction. Washington insiders expect Rep. Bud Shuster, R-PA, chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, to soon offer legislation to create a Motor Carrier Safety Administration.
Slater said he has added $55.8 million to DOT's fiscal year 2000 budget to bolster the safety effort with more personnel and support to the states.
Regarding hours-of-service reform, he indicated that the negotiated rulemaking appears deadlocked. "Unfortunately, a lot of parties are still grounded in their personal interests," he said.
Still, Slater did not commit to the traditional rulemaking approach. He indicated he wants to pursue discussions: "I would hope that we could bring the parties together." One idea he broached is to combine electronic driver monitoring as an incentive to start talking.
Slater had some positive news about truck safety to bolster his position. He reported that there were about 100 fewer fatalities in truck-related accidents in 1998, compared to 1997.
Some of the enforcement changes in the plan already have been implemented by OMCHS chief Julie Cirillo. The agency has raised fines for safety violations and is increasing the number of compliance reviews (see "Safety Agency Gets Stricter," http://www.heavytruck.com/hdt/newsarch.html#990430.1677, and "Cirillo to Truckers: Be Safe — Or Else," http://www.heavytruck.com/hdt/newsarch.html#990423.1648).
In other moves, the agency will limit negotiated settlements of fines and will aggressively pursue legal action when a death occurs in a crash. It also has committed to eliminate its current enforcement backlog of 1,200 cases by the end of the year. Starting this summer, drivers who violate grade-crossing warnings will lose their commercial licenses. And moves to improve data quality and timeliness are under way.
Also on DOT's list is a national commission to study how pay affects a driver's decision to stay behind the wheel — even if he is tired. Another study will look at requiring new trucking companies to show they understand the safety regulations. And a third will examine the idea of mandatory speed governors in all trucks.
Joan Claybrook, president of Public Citizen, was quick to denounce the DOT initiative. "We regret the secretary of transportation has bowed to the trucking industry's opposition to genuine regulation by failing to move [OMCHS] to [NHTSA]," she said in a statement.