The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration and, more broadly, the Department of Transportation, is pursuing the goal of zero highway fatalities — but importantly, it now has funding and resources to do so, according to the FMCSA’s recently confirmed Administrator Robin Hutcheson. And that also means we may see some action on some long-delayed initiatives to improve the way the agency “grades” trucking company safety.
Hutcheson’s FMCSA update session packed a large conference room Saturday afternoon at the American Trucking Associations’ Management Conference and Exhibition in San Diego Oct. 22. She started with general remarks then brought up a panel of career agency officials to answer the more nitty-gritty regulatory questions. Emphasizing shared goals of the FMCSA and the ATA when it comes to safety, she and her colleagues communicated their willingness to listen and learn from the members.
“We’re listening and hearing things coming from you that need to shape the focus of our work,” Hutcheson said, and explained that she and her colleagues would be spending a couple of days at the convention to do just that.
The Covid-19 pandemic was an eye-opener for many about just how their goods get to them — including FMCSA Administrator Robin Hutcheson, as she explained at #ATAmce2022 Saturday. pic.twitter.com/ODV8GQSpKl— Heavy Duty Trucking (@HDTrucking) October 23, 2022
“It’s so important that we thank you, all of you, in this room … we understand so much more about this industry today than we did a couple years ago,” she said, noting that the pandemic “made clear for a lot of folks what you all already knew. It feels like the end of the world when your Amazon box doesn’t… well, I take it back, look at the company,” she said to laughs from the audience. “When whatever box it is does not arrive on time,” she continued, “you feel a little bit annoyed, and you start wondering, how does it get here anyway.” Pointing to statistics about how the overwhelming percentage of freight in this country moves by truck, she said, “We understand this so much better now. I personally understand it so much better now than I ever did.”
Aiming for Zero Highway Fatalities
Emphasizing that “we are a safety-driven organization,” Hutcheson said that every highway fatality is a person, and that everyone has a story of loss related to highway crashes.
“When I was deputy assistant secretary for safety policy, I realized I was becoming a repository for these stories of loss,” she said. “More than a few times, colleagues within the DOT wanted to talk about someone they lost in a roadway crash.”
In January, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg announced a National Roadway Safety Strategy to bring together the efforts of the DOT’s various agencies, including FMCSA, to address transportation deaths and strive for zero fatalities.
“This is the first time the DOT has said that zero is the right number of fatalities on the nation’s roadways,” Hutcheson told ATA attendees. “We’ve never really committed to that” before, she said, but the new strategy “really sets our policy.”
Part of that strategy involves the Safe System Approach, she said, which provides a framework to proactively create a safer transportation system by building multiple layers of protection.
“We need multiple ways to wrap around human beings so that a mistake doesn’t have to be fatal. Safer people, safer streets, safer vehicles, safer speeds, and better post-crash care.”
She said the National Roadway Safety System outlines the actions the DOT is going to take, and provides a call to action for everyone. “What can you do? What will you do?”
While safety is the number one priority of the agency, she said, other strategic priorities include economic strength, equity, climate, and innovation.
This is an important time, she said, because “we now have policy and resources to back up our mission with action.”
The bipartisan infrastructure bill passed this year, she said, “provides tools like we never had before. It is a once in a generational investment … in the future of every traveling American.”
A few of the trucking-related provisions of the BIL she outlined include the:
“We are very excited to kick this off,” she said, noting that equity is another DOT priority. “We keep hearing the same stories… safety issues from women including sexual violence and harassment that keep women from working as drivers. The inaugural meeting is in November. She also drew applause by commending ATA on its new Women in Motion initiative.
“We’ve had kickoff meetings to educate folks about what it is and what it means. It, in the safest way possible, will increase the number of drivers available.” Also related to the driver shortage, she said, the agency kicked off two studies last summer to study driver compensation and driver detention time.
“We hope to support the National Roadway Safety Strategy… by harnessing technology to improve safety outcomes.” The legislation directs the DOT to study and potentially mandate automatic emergency braking on new commercial motor vehicles. Hutcheson was enthusiastic about the potential for the technology. Last week, she said, she got to experience AEB in a truck and how it avoided a crash with a stationary vehicle in front of it by inches.
Large Truck Causation Study
The BIL directed the DOT to carry out a comprehensive study on the causes of, and contributing factors to, crashes involving commercial vehicles. “The last study was two decades ago,” Hutcheson said. And in fact, the agency already had been preparing to conduct a new study before the law was passed, noting that there are reams of data now available to the agency that weren’t when it was conducted before.
During the Q&A session, one fleet executive asked about how the agency would address the issue of distracted driving, saying out that it’s far under-reported on police reports; officials aren’t going to subpoena the cell phone records of drivers in every crash. “We’ve had multiple vehicles involved in accidents cause by other people texting and driving.”
Jack Van Steenburg, executive director and chief safety officer, said distracted driving is one of the things the agency is looking at in the study, and that the research is going beyond typical police reports. The agency will have post-crash interviews and do in-depth examinations of crashes to get more details.
“All of this helps us reach our ambitious goal of zero fatalities.”
A Dozen Years of Trying to Fix CSA
Ever since what’s now known as the Compliance, Safety, Accountability program went into effect in 2010, the agency and the trucking industry have been looking for ways to address some of its shortcomings.
Several of the questions at the ATA session revolved around this issue, which is a complex one.
While calling CSA “a great tool,” Van Steenburg also acknowledged its shortcomings. New funding streams from the bipartisan infrastructure law and an increased focus on “safety infrastructure” as part of the National Roadway Safety System and the Safe Systems approach seem to have galvanized the agency. “We have some new approaches to CSA,” he said. “Stay tuned.”
Safety Fitness Determination
Ever since CSA was implemented, the goal was to tie that data into how FMCSA determines a motor carrier’s safety fitness rating. A dozen years later, the agency is still only using it to identify carriers for audits.
Read more about what the FMCSA is working on in 2023.
But Van Steenburg said, “We have safety fitness determination on the rulemaking docket; we’re working toward that right now.”
In its recent rulemaking agenda, FMCSA said it plans to publish an advanced notice of proposed rulemaking in early 2023, seeking information on how the agency “might use data and resources more effectively to identify unfit motor carriers and to remove them from the nation's roadways.” FMCSA said it will request public comment about the use of available safety data, including inspection data, in determining a carrier’s fitness to operate.
The agency will also seek public input on possible changes to its current three-tier safety fitness rating structure. That will also entail reviewing the federal motor carrier safety regulations used in its safety fitness rating methodology.
It’s not the first time the agency has tried. A 2016 proposal on changing the safety fitness determination process would have replaced the three-tier federal rating system of “satisfactory–conditional–unsatisfactory,” which has been in place since 1982, with a single determination of “unfit.” A carrier determined to be unfit would have been required to either improve its operations or cease operations.
That proposal would have determined carrier fitness based on its BASICs data, investigation (audit) results; or a combination of on-road safety data and investigation information.
But in 2017 the FMCSA scrapped the proposal after the industry argued that the agency needed to fix problems with the CSA program itself before using that data to determine motor carrier fitness ratings.
And in fact, as was brought out in the ATA session, although the FMCSA is reviving plans to change how it makes safety fitness determinations, the agency is still looking at changes to CSA itself.
Some fixes already made have been welcome, including one that went into effect in 2020 that allows carriers to request the agency remove crashes that were not preventable through the FMCSA's DataQs website.
The Data Problem
From the beginning, CSA was fraught with problems, including the fact that brokers, insurers, attorneys, and others were using the publicly available scores in ways DOT never intended. Eventually, trucking convinced Congress, in 2015, to order FMCSA to shut down public access to that data while it revamped the program. And Congress had a very specific way it wanted the agency to address it – by getting actual scientists involved from the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine.
At the heart of CSA is the Safety Measurement System, which is supposed to identify carriers at high risk for future crashes. But NAS found that some of the details of how those numbers are calculated weren’t really scientifically based, or as the report said, “ad hoc and not fully supported by empirical studies.”
The congressionally mandated review of the Compliance, Safety, Accountability program recommended FMCSA develop a “more statistically principled approach” for the task, based on an item response theory (IRT) model. IRT is widely used in the education field (think SAT tests) and has been used for policy decisions in other areas, such as hospital rankings.
But that’s been easier said than done. In 2019, a DOT audit found the agency didn’t have the data it needed, and that in fact some of the data NAS recommended “does not exist.”
One of the areas where fleets want to get more data into the system is when their trucks get inspected and don’t have any violations. Van Steenburg seemed to share the industry’s frustration with the inability for safe fleets to get “clean” inspection reports.
Paul Enos, the CEO of the Nevada Trucking Association, said his state’s enforcement officials will write up no-defect inspection reports, but in other states they won’t, only reporting those with violations. “How can we communicate the need for a carrot and stick approach?” he asked.
Van Steenburg replied, “We’re preaching it — just give an inspection report whether it’s clean or no violations. We want the information to generate the data in our CSA program as well.” The agency works with its MCSAP partners, works with CVSA, has internal meetings with its state partners. “It’s a constant dialogue we have with enforcement agencies throughout the country to ensure they are following the inspection protocols and that we do get the inspection report.”
Steenburg also talked about the Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance’s new Level VIII inspection program, which is an inspection conducted electronically or wirelessly while a commercial motor vehicle is in motion — without direct interaction with a roadside inspector/enforcement official. While this has largely been talked about in conjunction with how to eventually inspect driverless trucks, it also will allow the agency to collect far more data on fleets and put more “clean-inspection” data into the CSA program. And on top of that, Hutcheson pointed out, these inspections also help the agency’s climate goals by cutting the idling trucks experience at weigh stations.
Whatever Happened to ‘Beyond Compliance’?
Following up on the idea that safety is better served by both a carrot and a stick approach, Mark Doughty, president and CEO of the Prepass Safety Alliance, asked about a program called “Beyond Compliance” that never came to fruition
The Fixing America's Surface Transportation Act, or FAST Act, signed by President Obama in December 2015, required FMCSA to allow recognition, including credit or an improved SMS percentile, for motor carriers that took certain actions beyond what the regulations require, such as:
- Install advanced safety equipment
- Use enhanced driver fitness measures
- Adopt fleet safety management tools, technologies, and programs.
The agency was already looking into it before the FAST Act went into effect, but it has been slow to make progress. In 2019 the agency announced it would collect information from motor carriers to study the effectiveness of various technologies, programs, and policies on motor carrier safety performance to help it develop the Beyond Compliance program. A federal contractor, MaineWay Services, has for the past several years been working on a study to survey a small group of motor carriers and create a base of best practices.
During the MC&E session, Steenburger expressed frustration at the complexity of developing a “Beyond Compliance” program.
“It’s a great concept,” he said. “I guarantee every carrier here has got great safety practices, or you wouldn't be here….it should be a course of your normal business.”
But, he said, a trucking company can’t just call up FMCSA and say, ‘Hey, we’ve got this new safety management strategy where we’re talking to drivers about distraction.’
“How do we manage that? How do we know what's working? How long do we have time to assess that it's working? And then when do we give you credit in CSA?
“And so you're just one carrier; we regulate 600,000 carriers out there. So how do we manage that fairly across all the carriers? These are some of the challenges that we're addressing.
“It's tied into the CSA program right now. Obviously, we are addressing the CSA program. So give it some time. …I just don't know how to manage the entire beyond compliance program right now.”