The nation's truck safety chief chats later this month with a bunch of lawyers, shippers, brokers, and carriers. The conversation should be televised.
On March 17, Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administrator Anne S. Ferro speaks in Nashville, Tenn., before the annual conference of the Transportation & Logistics Council, a group of prominent attorneys and practitioners. The venue is fitting, for Ferro will face the music from a pretty tough crowd.
Mind you, they'll be cordial. Lawyers don't attack with rotten tomatoes and overripe onions. But it's doubtful they'll let Ferro off the hook either. Her agency, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA), has rewritten the rules of trucking, and she'll have to explain them to folks whose clients believe they're victims of administrative overreach.
Ferro could be pressed on FMCSA's response to February's Government Accountability Office (GAO) report that concluded the agency's CSA 2010 truck safety program is built on flawed methodology, making it difficult to assess which carriers are a safety risk and which aren't. The GAO report found that most of the nation's 500,000 licensed truckers lack sufficient safety data to allow safety scores to be generated to measure their fitness. Today, 39 months after CSA's rollout, only 11 percent of carriers have received enough inspections to generate a score.
Ferro may be asked if FMCSA has abdicated its role as the final arbiter of carrier safety by creating a questionable program—one that a nonpartisan federal agency says is based on incomplete data—and requiring property brokers and, by extension, shippers to base their carrier selections on it. She might face questions about whether this offloads liability to the users in the event a carrier they've chosen is involved in a catastrophic accident and they're sued for ignoring CSA data because of doubts about its reliability. And she could be pressed to respond to assertions that it would be fairer for FMCSA to issue a "yes" or "no" on a carrier's fitness to operate and let that decision be tantamount to the force of law.
If the issues are addressed alphabetically, the conversation will next turn to the agency's truck driver "Hours of Service" (HOS) rule. Crafted over the objections of every stakeholder, the regulations reduce driver and fleet productivity, exacerbate an existing driver shortage, and could put more drivers on the road during commuting rush hour as a result of new requirements governing how drivers restart their workweek clock. It is estimated that 75,000 more tractors will be needed to haul a given amount of freight than were necessary before enforcement of the rules began last July.
Ferro could be asked why a congressionally mandated study on the impact of the workweek restart language did not address the real-world safety implications of putting more trucks on the road during daytime hours. Or why it's silent on the purported health benefits that were used to justify the restart language to begin with. Someone may inquire whether the study, which canvassed 106 drivers, is a representative example of the driver workforce, especially when less than one-third of those surveyed were over-the-road drivers most impacted by the provisions.
Few doubt that Ferro and FMCSA have aggressively pushed the safety envelope, and that the agency's actions have created additional economic stress for an industry that already has its fair share of it. No one questions her intent. Unsafe fleets must be shut down post haste, and unsafe drivers must be taken off the road. CSA and HOS may one day be hailed as the answers to reducing truck-related accidents, and the deaths and injuries they can cause. On that point, only time will tell. For now, however, Ferro has much explaining to do.