Anne Ferro, President Obama's nominee to head the Federal Motor Carrier Administration, was politely received by the Senate Commerce Committee at her confirmation hearing last week but ran into tough questioning from Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J.
Lautenberg believes the agency is "in dire need of reform" and said he is concerned about Ferro's ties to the trucking industry, referring to Ferro's current position as president and CEO of the Maryland Motor Truck Association. "How do we assure ourselves that you'll be an independent safety regulator?" he asked.
Ferro replied that she has made a career as a safety regulator and advocate, first as chief of the Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration and then at the trucking association where she worked to improve truck safety.
"I assure you, and make a personal commitment to this committee, that my passion is highway safety," she said. "I am fully committed and fully prepared to implement those measures that achieve the greatest gains we need to achieve in the motor carrier industry."
Hours of Service
Lautenberg then moved on to the hours of service rule, asking Ferro if she would support revising it.
He echoed the charge by the advocacy organization Citizens for Reliable and Safe Highways, and the Teamsters union, that Ferro supports the current hours of service rules despite data showing that fatigue is a factor in many truck crashes. Lautenberg cited a letter to the editor of the Baltimore Sun Ferro co-authored last January, in which she and Barbara Windsor, president and CEO of Hahn Transportation, defended the current hours rule.
In their letter, Ferro and Hahn said that the Sun's editorial against the rule failed to note that the current rule reduces the hours drivers are allowed to work each day, and increases the hours of rest required. The additional hour of driving time that the rules permit falls within a shorter total work day, they said.
In response to Lautenberg's question last week, Ferro said that she is committed to reviewing the current rule and making changes if improvements are possible. "This committee has my strongest commitment to advance measures that achieve safety gains and address driver health and wellness issues," she said.
Lautenberg had one more issue, electronic onboard recorders, and on this he appeared not to get the answer he wanted.
He asked Ferro if she believes recorders should be required on all trucks. She replied that if confirmed she would make it a top priority to take a look at the recorder requirement.
"I hear you, Ms. Ferro," Lautenberg said. "You say you're going to revisit these things. Do you agree that it might be a good idea to get (recorders) on all the trucks out there?"
"Senator," Ferro replied, "what I would say is that I agree that (recorders are) a technology that offers significant gains in safety enforcement for the law enforcement community …. I agree that they can be demonstrated to improve safe operations."
"So why wouldn't you want to have them in all trucks?" Lautenberg said.
Ferro repeated her commitment to making recorders a top priority, but Lautenberg was not satisfied. "You are conditioning your support on discoveries yet to be made and I think that I'd like a more affirmative answer," he said.
The hearing moved on, and Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, returned to the issue first raised by Lautenberg concerning Ferro's ties to the trucking industry. She offered Ferro a chance to rebut the contention that those ties mean she cannot be a fair arbiter of safety.
"My career in government as well as my time at the trucking association has been as an advocate for safety and I continue to press ahead with my passion for safety," Ferro said. She noted her work on a graduated licensing law in Maryland, and a requirement for interlock devices for drunk drivers. "My position on safety is firm," she said.
In another exchange, Ferro told Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., that she supports his bill to create a national clearinghouse for information about truck driver drug and alcohol test results. She said that as a member of the Commercial Driver License Advisory Committee she advocated for the clearinghouse. "Should I be appointed I am thoroughly committed to implementing that system," she said.
HHG, the Border and More
Pryor also wanted to know if Ferro had any insights on how FMCSA could be more effective against unscrupulous household goods movers. She replied that if confirmed she would try to replicate nationally the approach she used in Maryland to seek alliances with state consumer advocacy groups and attorneys general to uphold consumer protection laws.
And Pryor asked for Ferro's opinion on how to resolve the continuing dispute over long-distance trucking between the U.S. and Mexico. How would she implement a cross-border program should Congress agree to reinstate it?
Ferro replied that she is committed to meet or exceed U.S. safety standards. "Any non-national trucking company that would operate in the U.S. would have to adhere at a minimum to U.S. safety standards," she said.
The chairman of the Commerce Committee, Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., was not at the hearing but in a statement indicated that he supports Ferro. "You have a broad, balanced resume with experience as both a safety regulator and a trucking advocate," he said. "I expect that, if confirmed, you will use both of these experiences to properly inform and lead FMCSA by actively advancing a reformed safety agenda."
He noted, however, that he has concerns about the agency's focus and that some stakeholders have voiced concern about her nomination. "I have worked to open the lines of communication between those stakeholders, the Department of Transportation, you and me - to begin addressing those concerns," he said. "I expect that you will continue to keep those lines of communication open."
Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., made an appearance on Ferro's behalf, saying that Maryland Democrats and Republicans alike respect her professional skills. "Some of the decisions she made at the Motor Vehicle Administration were difficult and controversial but she took them on as the right thing to do," he said. "I strongly recommend her confirmation."
Business and Safety
Ferro herself brought up a perspective that is not traditionally a part of such hearings: the influence of the economics of the business on safety.
It has been difficult to improve safety in a multi-sector industry "where segments of it have such low barriers to entry that competition for business is sometimes characterized as a race to the bottom," she said in her opening statement.
"Whoever leads this agency must foster frank discussions about the fundamentals in the freight supply chain and motor coach industries that encourage participants to push the limits and put the driving public and other commercial drivers at risk," she said.
"Uncompensated time, compensation by the mile or load, professional drivers classified as laborers - these are all aspects of a supply-chain model that rewards squeezing transportation costs out of the equation; factors that shift the cost onto the driving public and professional driver."
Such issues do not come under FMCSA's regulatory umbrella, but Ferro sees a leadership role for the administrator.
"The administrator must take the lead in raising questions and opening up the discussion if we are to realize a commercial vehicle industry where the safest drivers and safest motor carriers are the most competitive, not the other way around."
Before the committee votes, members who were not at the hearing will submit written questi