Estimates of safety gains from revision of the hours of service rules are based on assumptions, not concrete data – and no one knows if those assumptions are reasonable.

That is the message to Congress from the General Accounting Office, the watchdog agency charged with critiquing how government does its work.

In a report to Rep. Frank Wolf, R-VA, chairman of the transportation appropriations subcommittee, GAO pointed out that if the assumptions that underlie the hours proposal are not reasonable, then the benefits could turn out to be significantly different than the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration has estimated.

GAO’s observations do not expose any secrets. It is well understood that the safety agency is hampered by a lack of data about what causes accidents. The agency itself, when it proposed the rule, explained that detailed data to support its assumptions does not exist, so it was relying in part on professional judgment.

It estimated, for example, that requiring longhaul and regional truckers to use electronic recorders to track driver hours would lead to 20% fewer fatigue-related accidents and 115 lives saved each year. At the same time, the agency acknowledged that if the recorders produced only a 5% accident reduction, the benefit would be 38 lives saved.

The point is, the numbers are not certain – a circumstance that troubles federal accountants.

By its timing, the GAO report may play into the hours-of-service political struggle now under way in Congress.

Since it highlights the uncertainty in the safety agency’s analysis, the GAO report could provide ammunition to truckers and their allies in Congress who are seeking to delay the proposal.

It comes as House and Senate appropriations panels are supposed to confer on a bill that would cut off funding for the rulemaking process. The Senate version of the Department of Transportation appropriations bill contains that provision, while the House version does not.

Wolf, who will be the House manager of the conference, is adamantly opposed to the delay, which is being pushed by trucking interests led by American Trucking Associations.

But other members of the House have expressed concern about the impact of the proposal on the trucking industry (see “Hart Acknowledges Trucker Concerns About Hours of Service,” 6/23/2000).

GAO’s critique of the hours of service proposal came in the context of a broader critique of FMCSA’s progress toward meeting its safety goals.

Repeating a message it has delivered before, the accounting agency said that FMCSA needs to explain how its safety initiatives will reduce accidents and fatalities. The safety agency’s response is that it does not have the data to produce the kind of estimates GAO wants. It is working on an accident analysis program that will eventually produce that data, but the results still are years away.