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McCain conducts a hearing on motor carrier safety

Sen. John McCain, chairman of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, initiated the first Senate hearing on the issue of motor carrier safety since Rep. Frank Wolf drew attention to this issue last year. The hearing, on April 27, consisted of two panels of witnesses: one governmental panel and one private sector panel. Of the 20 senators on the committee, Sen. McCain was the only one in attendance, and he comfortably controlled the pace and focus of the hearing. At the conclusion of the hearing, the senator expressed an interest in addressing truck safety issues this year, with legislation if necessary (the House of Representatives is reportedly discussing whether or not to propose a new motor carrier administration).

The Senate hearing gave the usual cast of characters (representatives from trucking and public interest groups, and enforcement and regulatory agencies) a new forum in which to state their views on trucking safety. The hearing was notable for the release of the OMCHS audit report by the Department of Transportation's Inspector General (IG) Kenneth Mead. In the report, Mead takes the position that the proposal of moving the OMCHS to the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration would not address the deficiencies he sees in the OMCHS's effectiveness. What he does recommend is a new Motor Carrier Safety Administration that has "...strong leadership, a clearly defined mission aimed at safety, and management willing to make tough decisions..." An example of such a tough decision would be to impose "shutdown" orders on noncompliant motor carriers when necessary.

General Mead's primary critique of the OMCHS is that it has failed to truly enforce the safety regulations in a way that deters noncompliance. Another critique by the IG is that the OMCHS has no data related to the causes of truck crashes. This issue has arisen in all of the recent hearings as one of the most glaring problems regarding truck safety issues. No one can say, due to a lack of accurate data, what are truly the predominant causes of truck crashes. All anyone can offer is their experience and anecdotal evidence as to what they believe causes truck crashes and fatalities. OOIDA has taken the position that we must have better information defining the problem before the government mandates expensive and burdensome regulations that may not reduce the number of crashes and fatalities. OOIDA will be pressing the need for the collection of crash data to reorganize the priorities of federal trucking regulators.

NTSB TURNS ITS ATTENTION TO TRUCK SAFETY ISSUES

In mid-April, The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) held a three-day hearing airing truck safety issues (combined with an inquiry into motor coach/bus safety). OOIDA was represented by Vice President Todd Spencer on one panel concerning the status of the trucking industry today, and by owner-operator and OOIDA Director Woody Chambers on another panel examining the view from the driver's seat.

One development from this hearing was a better understanding of new OMCHS administrator Julie Cirillo's direction in guiding the OMCHS. She was given the opportunity to show her appreciation for and expertise in the operation of highway traffic. More significantly, she emphasized a new focus on enforcement rather than partnership with the motor carrier industry. She stated that enforcement must take a broad look at all parties in the trucking industry.

This position was in evidence in a safety action plan written by OMCHS identifying ways in which the office could bolster its enforcement efforts. This action plan proposes that enforcement by OMCHS would include motor carriers, truckdrivers and other highway users, vehicle and cargo issues, highway infrastructure safety issues, and international border enforcement issues. This broad focus works well with OOIDA's position that solely focusing enforcement resources on drivers and roadside inspections is not enough to improve trucking safety.

Although there is appreciation among many persons for this broad enforcement net being cast by Cirillo, most discussions concerning reform of the current regulatory scheme center around the issues of whether or not there needs to be a new motor carrier administration. This idea, endorsed by the OOIDA board of directors, Mead, and several other trucking organizations, is one where a more expansive enforcement effort would be institutionalized so that it would survive the inevitable changes in personalities and expertise that occurs in leadership positions in the federal government.

Another issue that has been raised in each of these hearings is how technology could be used to improve trucking safety. A range of uses has been suggested, including truck tracking using global positioning satellite technology, devices to record a driver's hours of service, imminent crash warning equipment, fatigue detecting devices, and better braking systems.

In the high tech age, the idea of a technology fix for any issue has a great appeal to many lawmakers. It is politically easier to rely upon technology to solve problems than it is to mandate that people change or take on different responsibilities. Trucking is a human-run industry and no consensus has formed as to what kind of technology could fit into such an environment. Additionally, privacy issues have been virtually ignored in these discussions of technology.

It is unlikely that these individual issues are going to be resolved before any decisions are made on the broader issue of what kind of regulatory reform is necessary at OMCHS. It is possible we will have a much clearer understanding of the views of lawmakers and regulators in the next two months as they review and digest all of the information that they have gathered this spring.