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New Rules of the Road Troublesome for Truckers

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Panelists: • Jack Van Steenburg, chief safety officer and assistant administrator, Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, Washington, D.C. • Rob Abbott, vice president of safety policy, American Trucking Associations, Arlington, Va. • Jim Burg, president and CEO, James Burg Trucking Co., Warren, Mich. • Larry Hall, transportation manager, Severstal North America, Columbus, Miss. Editor’s note: The federal government’s new CSA (Compliance, Safety, Accountability) program seeks to improve truck and bus safety by establishing a Safety Measurement System, which analyzes all safety-based violations from inspections and crash data to assess a commercial motor carrier's on-road performance. The new safety program is designed to allow regulators to reach more carriers earlier and deploy a range of corrective interventions. The measurement system uses seven safety improvement categories called BASICs to examine a carrier's on-road performance and potential crash risk: Unsafe Driving, Fatigued Driving (Hours-of-Service), Driver Fitness, Controlled Substances/Alcohol, Vehicle Maintenance, Cargo-Related and Crash Indicator. By looking at a carrier's safety violations in each category, law enforcement will be better equipped to identify carriers with patterns of high-risk behaviors and can intervene before accidents occur, officials say. But as the following comments from panelists at FMA’s recent toll processing conference show, the federal government still needs to work some bugs out of the CSA system. “The principle behind CSA is to remove high-risk carriers and drivers from the industry,” said Jack Van Steenburg, chief safety officer and assistant administrator for the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration in Washington, D.C. CSA’s safety measurement system is designed to make better use of available data to identify unsafe drivers and give carriers guidance on where they need to improve, he explained. He acknowledged that enforcement could force some drivers out of the industry, worsening the already short supply, and that some of the rules still need to be fine-tuned to be sure they are fair. But all that is secondary to saving lives, he added. “Unfortunately, we lost 3,506 people last year in truck and bus crashes. That is what we are here for as the FMCSA, to ensure highway safety.” Regulators conduct 3.6 million inspections each year among the 700,000 carriers in the United States. Under the old system, only 11,000 compliance reviews were performed each year. “We are now using that inspection data as a performance-based system to better determine who we want to contact,” Van Steenburg said. Rather than relying on a safety fitness methodology that simply issues a satisfactory or unsatisfactory rating, the FMCSA can now utilize the inspection data to identify specific problem areas and take steps to alert carriers to driver safety behavior that warrants attention. “We feel that instead of the 11,000 compliance reviews, we will be able to touch about 100,000 carriers with the new array of interventions that we have,” he said. The three most common violations occur in the areas of fatigued driving, vehicle maintenance and unsafe driving. “Fatigued driving, driving too fast, texting, not wearing seat belts, these are indicators that a carrier is at risk of future crashes,” Van Steenburg said. Other panelists disputed the correlation between statistics on driver safety and their predictability of future accidents. The trade group representing the country’s carriers, the American Trucking Associations, based in Arlington, Va., is “generally supportive of CSA, especially the concepts and the intent of the program,” said panelist Rob Abbott, ATA’s vice president of safety policy. However, some of the ratings can be misleading and unfair and need to be addressed by FMCSA, Abbott said. For example, crash indicator scores are not necessarily reliable predictors of future crashes. Truckers say the system gives the same weight to all crashes, including those the trucking company could not have prevented, such as a case where a parked truck was struck by another vehicle. Disparities in regional enforcement also affect the reliability of the scores Abbott said. “Some states have much more robust enforcement programs, so carriers operating in those states are more likely to have high scores, not necessarily because they are less safe than other carriers, but because of where they operate.” Cargo-related rules, of particular interest to flat-bed steel haulers, also show little relationship to crashes. And they can also be troublesome in terms of enforcement. “Fleets are being cited for cargo securement violations on flatbed vehicles because they are more visible,” Abbott said. “For example, if a load requires 10 straps, but the driver uses 12 straps to make the load extra secure, and the 12th strap has a cut or tear, that counts against him in the system.” Cargo-related violations all bear the maximum 10 weighting in the system, regardless of whether the issue is minor. While the scores in some BASIC categories are reliable indicators of a carrier’s future crash risk, others are not, Abbott asserted. “To their credit, the agency has been responsive to the industry’s calls for changes. Eventually they are going to tie the ratings in the system to carrier fitness, however. We are very concerned about that because some of the scores are not accurate reflections of carrier safety performance. To give them a rating based on those scores would be very inappropriate.” Jim Burg, president and CEO of James Burg Trucking Co., Warren, Mich., maintains that CSA rules will impede the growth and capacity of the flatbed trucking industry. Compliance has added considerable cost to his operation, he said. “The counter to expected increases in operating costs is anticipated to come from the reduction of crashes. I have not concluded that the benefits to my company will outpace the cost. I would like to see some issues resolved by the FMCSA and the federal highway administration. The journey so far has been difficult.” Pointing to some additional hard costs, Burg said his insurance carrier raised his rates by 18 percent at the last renewal, at least partly because of CSA data. His company spent $30,000 on a truck-based GPS system that monitors drivers’ speed and alerts them when they go too fast. Prompted by the CSA, the company hired a safety manager to monitor and educate drivers. It also set up a bonus system and tied driver pay increases to their compliance data. “I believe the net cost to the company is probably 1 percent of revenues, so that is a significant investment we have made to address these issues,” Burg said. Among soft costs to the company is an added recruitment burden. Management takes fewer chances when hiring applicants with even minor infractions in their past history and is quicker to terminate drivers with violations, at the risk of being accused of wrongful termination. “These actions relate to lost productivity and inefficient use of equipment,” Burg said. Burg Trucking has experienced a significant year-over-year reduction in traffic incidences since 2010, in part due to the data that CSA provides. But the company is still being assessed a CSA value for six crashes in which it was not at fault. Of the 20 violations the company has received in the last 24 months related to the hours-of-service rules, only three were actual hourly violations. The other 17 were bookkeeping errors. “We have drivers who were not even close to violation of the hours restrictions, but because they did not keep their logbook up to date it was still a violation. That is what we have to deal with in educating our people,” Burg said. He added that he would like to see the administration act more quickly to correct issues, such as non-involved crashes, and take responsibility to discipline drivers directly. “Right now they are saying it is my problem. And in a market where drivers can easily go get a job someplace else, I am just the overbearing boss they say terminated them without proper cause. They have a chance to continue employment elsewhere and still be an unsafe driver on the road.” Severstal North America, Columbus, Miss., is a minimill steel producer with three million tons of annual production, nearly half of which is transported by truck. So the tight supply of qualified drivers in the marketplace—made tighter by the new trucking regulations—is a major concern, said Larry Hall, Severstal transportation manager. He sympathizes with the truckers, who often work long hours for poor pay. “The economic fluctuations of the past few years have been brutal to the trucking guys. Just as they are starting to gain some traction, they get hit with more government regulation,” he said. Many small trucking companies went out of business during the recession and, despite the need for more capacity, new startups face substantial barriers to entry. “It used to be if you had a little ambition and a little money, you could be in the trucking business tomorrow. You can’t do that today. There are regulations to hold you up and a lack of credit from the banks. So the surviving trucking companies have leverage. With fewer truckers to bargain with, prices are on the rise,” he noted. The new CSA rules have made Severstal even more cautious about which trucking companies it uses. “I have an informal policy,” Hall says. “If you are a carrier that wants to do business with Severstal Mississippi and you are in violation of three BASICs, you are not doing business with me.” He foresees the possibility of a lawsuit in the future where a trucking company is accused of a wrongful death and CSA scores are introduced as evidence. “Managing risk, that’s what we are looking at here,” he concluded.