The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration is again offering carriers the option of using an informal hearing to contest penalties for violations of the safety rules.

The agency started offering the hearings on a limited basis in 2005 but suspended the program in 2010 out of concern that the officials who were conducting the hearings might not be considered neutral.

After studying the program and proposals to improve it, the agency has determined that the informal hearings are an effective option for adjudicating enforcement cases.

In a March 27 Federal Register notice, the agency said it is reinstating the program and expanding it to all areas of the country. As the agency was introducing the program between 2005 and 2010, it limited it to the Midwest and East.

Informal hearings are one of several options available to those who disagree with a claim by the agency. A carrier can request binding arbitration or administrative adjudication. Adjudication can be handled through a formal hearing before an administrative law judge, through written evidence without a hearing or through an informal hearing.

The idea, the agency said, is to provide expedited consideration of a civil case by a neutral third party – an agency employee – with a final review by the agency’s assistant administrator.

Hearing officers are selected from the agency’s legal section and are separate from its enforcement counsel and activities, the agency said.

American Trucking Associations made several suggestions to improve the program. One was that the agency use electronic filing to speed up the process, and the agency said it will consider changing its rules to permit that.

ATA also suggested that the agency use hearing officers who are not FMCSA employees, but the agency rejected that idea. The attorneys in the legal section who are not involved in enforcement can be neutral arbiters, the agency said.

In response to another ATA concern, the agency said that a carrier has the right to appeal a decision of an informal hearing.