FMCSA Adminstrator Ray Martinez at agency forum in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 15.

FMCSA Adminstrator Ray Martinez at agency forum in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 15.

Photo: David Cullen

What a difference a year can make. In Washington, D.C. on Jan. 15, I covered the Federal Motor Carrier Association’s annual Analysis, Research, and Technology Forum for the second time. It was the 18th time the agency put on the program. It’s always held during the Transportation Research Board's annual meeting, which itself was being put on for the 98th time.

Sure, a lot has changed on the roads in almost a hundred years. More remarkably, though, things are different at the federal truck and bus safety agency from just a year ago. For one thing, of course, there is a new chief at the helm of FMCSA. Administrator Ray Martinez took over his post on March 1, so he was there addressing the agency event for the first time.

Also a year ago, Cathy Gautreaux was serving as deputy administrator and so as de facto chief, she was the main speaker at the 2018 TRB forum. But word came just days before this year’s meeting that she was moving on to take a leadership position with the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration. 

And it was just over a year ago, on Dec. 18, 2017, that FMCSA rolled out its electronic logging device mandate. Now, ELDs are being adopted industry-wide with relatively little fuss and the final compliance data (for those still operating automated onboard recording devices) kicks in at the end of the year.

Indeed, during the TRB session, FMCSA Director of Compliance and Enforcement Joe DeLorenzo reported that hours-of-service compliance has improved since full enforcement of the ELD rule kicked in on April 1, 2018. He reported that less than 1% (17,651) of all driver inspections (2.3 million) have resulted in writing up drivers cited for running without an ELD or grandfathered AOBRD.

On top of all that, it was almost six months to the very day of the meeting that FMCSA announced it had delivered a required “Correlation Study Corrective Action Plan” for its Compliance, Safety, Accountability program to Congress. Essentially, the plan is the agency’s response to how it will address recommendations made in the National Academy of Sciences’ “Improving Motor Carrier Safety Measurement” report.

That report, as you may recall (and I cannot seem to forget), was commissioned by FMCSA to comply with a provision of the FAST Act highway bill of 2015 that mandated a study be conducted of the agency’s Compliance, Safety, Accountability program and its Safety Measurement System component.

A key element of the NAS report is the recommendation that FMSCA study is using a more scientific modeling approach known as “Item Response Theory” and then consider implementing it to make the SMS function more accurately.

The hope is that turning to an IRT-based method will help develop “an estimate of the measure of ‘safety culture’ for each carrier and be used to monitor and identify carriers in need of intervention,” rather than just zero in on violations, DeLorenzo said back on Oct. 22, 2017, during an educational session at the American Trucking Associations’ annual Management Conference & Exhibition In Orlando, Florida.

During the TRB forum, DeLorenzo gave an update on the agency’s progress on implementing its CSA plan. It would seem FMCSA has made progress on the core IRT element as he said the agency will run a small-scale data test on the model in the next few months.

As to why the IRT statistical model is seen as central to improving the Safety Measurement System, DeLorenzo said that “the model can see things not apparent to our expert judgment. The general construct [of SMS] will likely remain the same, but the BASICs [the Behavior Analysis and Safety Improvement Categories that drive CSA scoring] may change” as the result of what is learned from an IRT data model.

If the agency is learning a lot by continuing its planned two-year deep dive into the NAS recommendations on CSA, it’s also tuned in and listening to the comments, suggestion, and petitions sent its way. During his turn at the podium, Administrator Martinez said being open to stakeholder concerns is helping drive FMCSA’s safety priorities for this year.

He said these will include inputting more accurate and timely crash data; evaluating tools that may help drivers realize when they are fatigued; continuing research on truck  platooning, and supporting research and technology adoption for automated driving systems. Martinez noted that while autonomous trucks “may not impact the industry right now, but there are decisions that government regulators have to make now that in the coming years  will allow the United States to be on firm ground with continued development of these technologies.”

Since taking the reins at FMCSA, he said, “one of my primary goals has been to emphasize the role of collaboration” with stakeholders. “That’s a key to the success of any organization, but especially for FMCSA” as its mission is to help improve highway safety.

Martinez said that while the agency has its agenda to pursue, it is “aiming to listen to and form partnerships with research, government, enforcement, and state regulatory organizations. That’s critical to making sure we have buy-in [of rules and programs] from [trucking] businesses, with everyone from the CEO to the driver.”

About the author
David Cullen

David Cullen

[Former] Business/Washington Contributing Editor

David Cullen comments on the positive and negative factors impacting trucking – from the latest government regulations and policy initiatives coming out of Washington DC to the array of business and societal pressures that also determine what truck-fleet managers must do to ensure their operations keep on driving ahead.

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