Washington Insider

The House of Representatives began to examine the issue of trucking safety in several hearings during February and March. These hearings looked at trucking safety in the context of the effectiveness of the Office of Motor Carriers. Representative Frank Wolf's (R-VA) Transportation Appropriations Subcommittee held its largest single hearing on Feb. 23. Witnesses at the hearing included the representatives of safety organizations, the trucking industry, the enforcement community, and officials from the Department of Transportation. Congressman Thomas Petri (R-WI), Chairman of the House Ground Transportation Subcommittee, held a series of three shorter hearings that ended on March 25 and included the participation of predominantly the same witnesses.

These hearings showcased many different points of view on the state of trucking safety. Officials from the Federal Highway Administration and the American Trucking Associations (ATA) promoted the proposition that trucking has made progress in trucking safety. They illustrated the point with statistics showing that the number of fatal accidents per mile driven has been going down even though the total number of miles driven by trucks has gone up. The ATA stated that its agenda included the wish to see more federal dollars appropriated for a bigger roadside inspection effort.

Witnesses from safety groups stated that the measure of fatal accidents per mile driven is a meaningless statistic when the total number of deaths are increasing each year and could reach more than 6,000 annually by the year 2000. They pointed out that this amount of fatalities is far more fatalities than those resulting from airplane crashes, yet the federal government does far less to identify and prevent the causes of trucking accidents than it does for airplane accidents.

The Inspector General of the Department of Transportation and a research official from the Government Accounting Office (GAO) presented a rather scathing assessment of the effectiveness of the Office of Motor Carriers. The IG described the current OMC approach to safety as moving away from enforcement and toward creating a more collaborative relationship between regulators and the regulated industry. This means that instead of using effective penalties to deter violations of safety regulations, there have been more meetings, seminars, and cooperative education efforts between OMC and the trucking industry to encourage better safety practices. Interestingly, the GAO official also acknowledged that many motor carriers create an environment whereby the driver is forced to ignore federal safety regulations.

Todd Spencer, OOIDA executive vice president, testified that to focus on the number of fatal accidents and the number of roadside inspections performed is to ignore many important trucking safety issues. Such issues that seem off the radar screen of many include the shortage of rest stops, the need for new hours-of-service regulations, the lack of driver training, and the lack of support for the Office of Motor Carriers' toll-free hotline. This last item was passed as part of the TEA-21 bill last year at OOIDA's initiative to allow drivers to report pressure being put on them to violate federal motor carrier safety regulations. The number for that hotline is 1-888-DOT-SAFT (368-7238).

Predictably, the opinions and perspectives of the participants in these hearings were all over the map. No consensus opinion has evolved on whether or what congressional action is needed to address current safety issues. It is believed that the likely result of these hearings will be a push at DOT to use its current authority to better address many of the issues raised by these hearings. Hopefully, this will include a concerted effort to resolve longstanding issues such as the need for new hours-of-service regulations.

As we reported last month, this renewed congressional focus on trucking safety was initiated by Rep. Wolf, who had accused the OMC of having an incestuous relationship with the trucking industry. His interest in this subject gained a lot of attention last year when he attempted to move the OMC into and under the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration. Rep. Wolf has initiated this proposal again this year by introducing a bill, HR 507 on Feb. 2. This bill has one co-sponsor, Rep. John Baldacci (D-ME), and was referred to the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee controlled by its chairman, Bud Shuster (R-PA). Rep. Wolf has pledged that he is going to address the truck safety problems he sees. However, given the tension between Rep. Wolf's and Rep. Shuster's committees over which committee more properly sets trucking policy (Washington Insider, March/April), the future of this legislation is unclear.

On another legislative note, Rep. Phil English (R-PA) has reintroduced his legislation to repeal the provisions of TEA-21 that would allow some states to place new tolls on interstate highways. This bill is numbered HR 1252 and currently has two co-sponsors in Rep. James Traficant (D-OH) and Rep. John Peterson (R-PA). This legislation has already received the endorsement of the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, and it is important for all persons interested in stopping new tolls to call their representative and ask them to be a co-sponsor of this bill. If one of the three sponsors named above is your congressman, it is important to write a thank you note to him in appreciation for taking the initiative to put his foot down against new tolls.

Since the shakeup of the OMC described in the last Washington Insider, the OMC was combined with the Office of Highway Safety.

The Washington Insider will be paying close attention to the new Office of Motor Carrier and Highway Safety to see whether this will result in a new regulatory approach to truck safety issues.