At a hearing yesterday the Senate Surface Transportation Subcommittee began its work on pending truck safety legislation by covering familiar territory - electronic onboard recorders, hours of service rules, the CSA 2010 reforms, truck size and weight limits, and driver pay.


Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., the chairman of the panel, asked Anne Ferro, chief of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, why it is not requiring all trucking companies to use electronic recorders to track driver hours.

Ferro explained that the rulemaking process did not permit the agency to go beyond the partial mandate that is in the EOBR rule it published earlier this month. The agency is pressing ahead with a broader proposal that it intends to publish later this year, she said. "It was clear to me that the opportunity to develop a universal rule, while in play now, would not have been in place as quickly as this one. This is incremental but it was very important that we get it in place," she said.

HOW MUCH DO EOBRS ACTUALLY AFFECT SAFETY?

Reaction to the EOBR question from the other witnesses at the hearing ran true to form.

Deborah Hersman, chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, reiterated the Board's long-standing support for universal recorders. Buzzy France, president of the Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance, which represents the interests of the enforcement community, also supports universal recorders. And Jacqueline Gillan, vice president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, described the agency's handling of the recorder rule as a case study in bureaucratic bungling. The new rule is extraordinarily weak, she said in her written testimony.

The American Trucking Associations believes that the new recorder rule, which targets only the most egregious offenders of the hours of service rule, is a good first step, said David Osiecki, senior vice president of policy and regulatory affairs. "The rule targets non-compliant carriers and gives us a chance to develop performance specifications and collect data," he said.

Asked by Lautenberg if recorders should be mandatory, Osiecki said it is still an open question as to whether recorders are the most effective safety technology that's available. "FMCSA has done numerous field operational tests on safety technologies such as lane departure warning and stability control that show a true safety return on investment," he said. "The same kind of test doesn't exist for EOBRs. We're not saying they can't improve safety, just that the data is not there."

Todd Spencer, executive vice president of the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, told Lautenberg that while it makes sense to target hours of service offenders with the new rule, he has seen no evidence that recorders improve safety in general.

There still is considerable divergence of opinion on the cost of recorders. Spencer told Lautenberg that a recorder will cost $2,000, not counting the monthly expense of communications. Osiecki said that a bare-bones device that does nothing but track driver hours and has none of the fleet management features of the more sophisticated systems can be had for $500, a number that recorder vendors have verified.

The House has drafted a bill that would require FMCSA to mandate universal recorders, and clearly Lautenberg is considering the same approach for the Senate version of the bill. It is not likely that Congress will pass the legislation this year.

HOURS OF SERVICE

Ferro told Lautenberg that the hours of service rewrite now under way will include information gathered at the listening sessions the agency has held over the past several months, as well as data it has collected from other sources. She said the proposal is due by July - "and we are well on pace to achieve that."

Lautenberg, presenting the views of the safety advocacy community, asked Osiecki if he really believes the driving time allowed in the current rule is safe.

"What we believe is that the rules are working," Osiecki replied, citing the six years of experience the industry has had with the rules.

The current rules allow drivers to drive longer than before, but they also mandate more rest time. "Time on task or time spent driving is not a very good predictor of fatigue," he said. "A better predictor is how well a person rests, and time of day."

ATA is pressing for more work on promoting measures such as sleep disorder screening and fatigue management systems, he said.

CVSA's France told Lautenberg that from enforcement's perspective, the current rule has substantially increased safety and is easily enforceable.

Hersman of the NTSB said she has seen data indicating a 7 percent out-of-service rate for log violations found at roadside inspections. "What this says to me is that this is the cost of doing business," she said.

CSA 2010

Ferro told Lautenberg that the agency's newest and most ambitious safety program, Comprehensive Safety Analysis 2010, is being rolled out incrementally in order to ensure that it succeeds.

Carriers are now able to preview their safety performance data, she said. Late this fall the new rating system will be rolled out. This will be followed by a proposal for determining safety fitness and then the states will roll out their intervention actions.

Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., asked Ferro about the concern in the trucking and enforcement communities about how FMCSA plans to manage the data used to determine safety performance.
She replied that she does not believe carriers will be falsely accused of being unsafe due to poor quality data. "I would say that given the quality of the data we have today and its continuous improvement path, and given the averages that CSA2010 has identified, we will have a process of accurately identifying unsafe carriers."

SIZE AND WEIGHT

Lautenberg, a longstanding opponent of longer combination vehicles, asked the witnesses what impact an increase in federal size and weight limits would have on safety. Lautenberg has authored a bill that would keep length restrictions as they are and freeze state weight practices throughout the National Highway System.

Spencer said that OOIDA does not believe bigger trucks are the way to improve productivity, efficiency or the industry's environmental footprint.

Gillan said there is a tremendous risk in allowing trucks to get heavier and longer. Trucks are overrepresented in fatal crashes, she said. "Why would we want to jeopardize the safety of drivers by allowing bigger and heavier trucks? There are plenty of studies showing that bigger trucks are more dangerous."

Osiecki's take was that just saying no is not an answer. ATA supports increased productivity, particularly in the Western states where harmonization of the longer combination vehicle limits would be beneficial to productivity. "We don't think that more productive trucks and safety are mutually exclusive," he said. He acknowledged that some members of ATA do not support higher limits, but added that the majority do.

MILEAGE PAY

Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., raised the perennial issue of how methods of driver pay may affect safety performance. She wanted to know what the witnesses thought of the idea that mileage pay creates an incentive for drivers to put in excessive hours.

Spencer in response noted that owner-operators have for years been concerned about shipper and receiver practices that force drivers to wait at the dock - time that is not compensated because the driver is not moving.

Osiecki's take was that he's not aware of any study that shows safety performance is linked to the method of driver pay. Some drivers are paid by the mile and some by the hour, a distinction that reflects differences in operation, he noted.

McCaskill indicated she would support further res
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