For Joe Clapp, chief of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, safety comes down to a personal commitment.
People need to move “beyond compliance to performance,” he said this week in his first interview since becoming FMCSA Administrator in early October.
Clapp himself learned the difference 40 years ago, early in his career as a trucking executive, when he found himself in front of the man who ran the original federal safety office.
“Ernest Cox,” Clapp relates, “by sheer dint of his sincerity and his integrity, made you understand that you had to comply – but that there was more to it than that. What really mattered was performance. That’s the tradition I would like to build on.”
As administrator at the safety agency, Clapp sees himself as the CEO. His role is to set the tone for the organization, create a vision and provide leadership.
“I have a bully pulpit to some extent, and I’m going to try to use that,” he said. “One hundred times a week somebody loses a loved one in a commercial vehicle crash. That’s unacceptable. We have to find a new level of thinking, to realize that it’s unacceptable and do something about it. And that’s what we are here to do.”
It makes sense that Clapp would use the CEO analogy, considering his background as a trucking executive: He rose through the ranks at Roadway Express to become chairman and CEO before retiring in 1995. Last summer, he answered Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta’s call to arms, left a comfortable retirement and returned to the fray of business and politics – because, as he said at the time, he believes in the agency’s mission.
Right now, he’s focused on the top items of a lengthy to-do list. First are the rules that must be drafted in order to open the Mexican border to long-distance trucking. Clapp expects to start processing Mexican applications as soon as the rules are complete, some time in the first quarter of 2002, and expects trucks to start crossing some time later, perhaps around mid-year.
Also on Clapp’s front burner is reform of the hours of service rules. The agency has finished its analysis of some 50,000 public comments on this massive rule, and he will decide what to do next by the end of this year, he said.
Clapp is constrained by law from talking about specifics, but he is focused on the scientific explanation for fatigue. What the research shows, he said, is that after a certain number of hours, or days, on the job, people’s performance deteriorates significantly.
“What matters is not the numbers, but whether we have an alert, qualified individual making decisions at 3 o’clock in the morning.”
Clapp also sent a strong message in support of Julie Anna Cirillo, who served as interim chief of the agency during the 21 months between its formation and Clapp’s confirmation. Cirillo, now Clapp’s deputy, presided over the contentious hours-of-service public comments and has been the target of criticism from industry and others.
“The reality is that Julie is a safety professional,” Clapp said. “And what you see is what you get. There’s no hidden agendas with Julie.”
He praised Cirillo’s performance in putting the agency together. “We would be in bad shape, quite honestly, from the standpoint of the organization, if we had not had Julie’s leadership and almost untiring efforts to get that job done.”
Cirillo has been “very enforcement-minded,” he noted. “But you have to realize that Congress laid down very, very emphatic and specific direction in that regard. So, she has had to do that. And I’m not going to say that’s not appropriate. Because that is our direction, it is appropriate. What I want to do is go beyond that.”
Meanwhile, though, he must contend with a budget that gives him barely adequate resources. “Obviously, I don’t have everything I want, and probably not everything I need.”
In particular, he’s concerned that Congress has cut the agency’s research budget to $4 million, from about $14 million. The September 11 attacks added to the burden when the agency had to postpone its standard safety compliance reviews in order to conduct security visits to some 30,000 hazmat carriers. “We are going to have to figure out how we are going to incorporate security going forward with the resources that we have.”
How will he measure his success in the long run? “The best way for me to articulate that is to say that when I go back to the golf course, I will have made a difference for the better. It’s very easy for us to develop numeric goals. But I’ll know, when I get through, whether or not I made a difference.”

Read more about Clapp's vision for truck safety in the January issues of RoadStar and Heavy Duty Trucking magazines.