Is the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s goal of zero truck-related fatalities an ideology or an appropriate aspiration?

Rep. Richard Hanna, R-N.Y., says it’s an ideology that leads to poor regulation.

Accidents are inevitable and there is no point in trying to drive the truck-related fatality rate down to zero, he says.

“If the goal is to reduce all deaths to zero, then we would close all our highways and park all our trucks.” This was in response to a question at a November hearing on the 34-hour restart provision of the hours of service rule.

“(Zero deaths is) an unrealistic, impractical goal that burdens the industry and is philosophically based, not reality based,” he said.

FMCSA Chief Anne Ferro has a different take.

FMCSA Administrator Anne Ferro. (File photo by Jim Park)

FMCSA Administrator Anne Ferro. (File photo by Jim Park)

“Zero is the right goal,” she said Tuesday in response to a question at a forum on FMCSA research projects. The forum was held in conjunction with the annual meeting of the Transportation Research Board in Washington, D.C.

“At the end of the day I wouldn’t call it ideology. I think it’s appropriate to call it a stretch goal, an aspirational goal, because we really shouldn’t suggest that we can explain and justify the fatalities and serious injury crashes that happen today.”

Ferro added that the agency should strive to eliminate crashes because drivers want to get home safely and employers want their employees to be safe and successful.

“So, it is absolute that we need to continue to strive towards crash-free environment and absolutely zero fatalities.”

Aviation achieves this goal, and it is within reach for the bus industry, she said. And trucking can strive for significant improvements even if zero fatalities is not on the near horizon.

“To do otherwise is to question each other’s motives and incentives,” Ferro said.

“Aspirational? Absolutely. Ideological? Not at all,” she said, drawing applause from many in the audience at the forum.

In practical terms, and by law, regulations have to meet cost-benefit standards.

“We have to find a balance,” observed Ron Knipling, a noted truck safety scientist and author of a seminal book on the issue, Safety for the Long Haul.

It’s also important to recognize the limitations of FMCSA’s reach, noted Rob Abbott, vice president of safety policy at American Trucking Associations.

For instance, the majority of car-truck crashes begin with a mistake by the car driver, he said.

“We have to evaluate if it’s … within (the agency’s) capability to impact every truck-related crash, knowing that 70% to 75% of crashes are the other motorist’s fault,” he said.

It is true that truck drivers cannot account for what other drivers will do, Knipling observes in his book. But that’s not the end of the matter, he adds.

“Motor carriers can do relatively little to prevent foolish and irresponsible acts by the public, but they can educate, monitor and control most aspects of their own safety operations. Truck drivers are professionals, driving amidst amateurs.”