OOIDA’s State of the Highway address
Our highways won’t be safer until we understand what’s wrong, OOIDA tells FMCSA

On Aug. 16, the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association presented testimony to the Department of Transportation’s Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration that could very well be called OOIDA’s “State of the Highway” address. In the association’s comments on DOT’s “Multi-Year Reauthorization Proposal” for FMCSA’s motor carrier safety programs, OOIDA’s Executive Vice President Todd Spencer told DOT it is time we stop turning our heads from the root causes of safety problems in the industry.

Spencer’s comments on behalf of OOIDA conveyed common sense essentials that are absolutely fundamental to understanding the process of improving highway safety. The association provided answers to FMCSA’s questions that sharply pointed out the shortsightedness of current strategies and actually provided solutions that are realistic and possible to achieve. OOIDA’s comments, in very clear language, spoke to problems that presently plague the trucking industry and if not addressed, will continue to contribute to the decline of safety on American highways.

Here are Spencer’s complete comments.


Comments on
DOT Multi-Year Reauthorization Proposal
Motor Carrier Safety Programs
Statement of the
Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, Inc.
Todd Spencer
Executive Vice President
August 16, 2001

The Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association Inc. (“OOIDA”) is pleased to present its comments to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (“FMCSA” or “the agency”) to help develop a multi-year reauthorization proposal that includes motor carrier safety programs.

First, OOIDA would like to encourage the agency to see owner-operators as one of the least utilized sources of safety information. Drivers should not merely be the focus of enforcement efforts. Truckdrivers have one of the highest rates of work-related injuries and deaths of any industry. For this reason, they have an intense interest in safety. The driver hotline should be an excellent source of information and should be fully utilized for the collection of that information. The hotline must be manned by individuals who have extensive knowledge of safety regulations and are prepared to give drivers immediate information. By the same token, drivers must be given protection from retaliation from carriers for reporting safety violations as employees in the airline industry enjoy. It may be technically illegal to retaliate against a whistleblower, but this provides no practical protection today.

Furthermore, this agency should strive to focus on determining the root causes of safety problems and solve such problems at their source. For example, out-of-service violations for overweight trucks penalize drivers when it is actually the shippers who determine the size of the load. Hours-of-service violations occur because motor carriers force drivers to meet unrealistic and often illegal pick-up and delivery schedules. Drivers are the party least able to effect change in the industry. This is why penalizing the driver fails miserably in curbing unsafe practices. Until the penalties are assessed to the responsible entities, they will have no incentive to change their behavior, and out-of-service rates will continue to rise or at a minimum, stay at the present level.

OOIDA encourages FMCSA to conduct research to evaluate the effectiveness of motor carrier safety requirements to ensure that these requirements are meeting their intended purpose. The results of such research would allow FMCSA to focus its resources on effective rules and stop wasting resources on unproductive efforts.

The following are OOIDA’s comments on the specific questions asked by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration:

How do we improve FMCSA and state program oversight of the CDL?
Although each state is required to comply substantially with specific requirements of the CDL program, closer federal monitoring is warranted. Recent events have proven that corruption and malfeasance at the state level can run rampant without the necessary checks and balances in place. These problems can go undiscovered for months or even years. The organizational structure and internal control mechanisms of each state must be thoroughly scrutinized prior to re-certifying a state’s CDL program. This includes regular reviews of third-party testing arrangements, as those with motor carriers (whose well-known desire for new drivers may be considered a conflict with the goals of the CDL testing regime).

FMCSA state directors should be assigned the responsibility to audit their respective state’s CDL program and periodically monitor administrative procedures and practices. OOIDA suggests that one component of a closer monitoring effort of the CDL program would be to review the safety performance of new CDL holders. The licensing agency could code newly issued CDLs to identify new drivers for periodic evaluation. OOIDA believes that the experience of the driver is the most important factor in the safe operation of a vehicle. Reviewing new CDL holders’ records would be an effective way for FMCSA and the state to oversee the effectiveness of its (and each state’s) CDL program.

What is the best approach to improving compliance among high-risk drivers?
The best way to improve driver compliance with safety regulations is to only allow good drivers to obtain a CDL. High-risk drivers, those with a checkered driving history behind the wheel of an automobile, should be identified during the application process and denied a CDL.

Once the state has issued a CDL, OOIDA believes that motor carriers should be held strictly accountable for their hiring practices and the subsequent actions of their drivers. After excluding high-risk drivers from obtaining a CDL, the issues that affect a driver’s safe operation of a vehicle are inadequate compensation and deplorable working conditions. These factors are simply not commensurate to attracting safe, responsible drivers and keeping them in the industry. Many motor carriers too often ignore their safety responsibilities in their scramble to fill empty seats with low-wage drivers. Through this practice, motor carriers and others (shippers, receivers and brokers) often are directly responsible for safety violations, and they must be penalized. Instead of taking responsibility for recruiting safe drivers, motor carriers often ask the government to impose new rules and regulations on drivers. Drivers who operate at the pleasure of the motor carrier do not have the ability to change motor carrier, shipper and broker indifference to safety rules. Driver-focused enforcement plans, therefore, will always fall far short of eliminating many safety problems.

Should FMCSA expand its medical program (in research and/or other areas)?
FMCSA should conduct a regular, periodic review of its medical qualification standards to ensure that they reflect current advancements in the medical sciences. While certain medical conditions may have warranted disqualification at a given point in time, with new medical treatments and aids, those same conditions may be much less of a concern today or in the future. Furthermore, there should be no blanket disqualification standards. The opportunity to apply for individual exemptions should be available for drivers with so-called “medical deficiencies.” Safe, otherwise qualified drivers should not be unjustly forbidden to operate in interstate commerce due to an antiquated medical standard.

What should be the federal role in establishing driver training programs?
Even though in most cases it is the automobile driver who is at fault in car-truck accidents, the association firmly believes that a significant number of these accidents could be avoided through better training of entry-level truckdrivers. Experienced professional drivers are in many cases able to avoid or mitigate the mistakes of non-professional drivers by employing defensive driving strategies.

Mandatory training for new commercial drivers is long overdue. Currently, there are no regulations that require a person to have any training before obtaining a CDL. Minimum criteria must be established and enforced. Past FHWA studies have shown that less than 10 percent of all motor carriers provide adequate training to their drivers. A comprehensive entry-level commercial driver-training program and a graduated CDL with an apprenticeship component should be mandated. The Truckload Carriers Association has proposed a pilot project for the training of drivers starting at age 18. While OOIDA is adamantly opposed to reducing the age limit to obtain an interstate CDL, we believe the level of training being proposed is the absolute minimum amount that all persons of any age must go through before obtaining a CDL for the first time. The federal government can play an important role in establishing the requirements for driver training programs.

How can we improve the safety of passenger car and commercial vehicle “interactions”?
FMCSA data indicates that between 1994 and 1998 passenger vehicle drivers contributed to 65 percent of fatal truck-passenger vehicle crashes. This is the most glaring proof that solely directing valuable resources at commercial vehicle regulation and enforcement is unproductive, wasteful and will simply not allow the agency to meet its safety goals. On the basis of the data, it would seem only logical that the most intense focus of the safety agenda should be on automobile drivers. The agency’s goal of reducing deaths and injuries by 50 percent by the year 2010 can never be reached without seriously addressing the actions of passenger drivers.

Much more needs to be done to address the inadequate education of automobile drivers. There are serious problems with teen driver education programs in the states, and these can be remedied through federal leadership. States have been eliminating, not strengthening, their school-based driver education programs. Teen drivers are less prepared than they have ever been to operate a vehicle safely. States that have instituted a graduated driver license program have found great success in reducing teen driving accidents. These efforts must be demanded, not just encouraged, of the states.

Drivers of all ages need to be made aware of better road sharing practices. Driver education should be continuous. Driving situations change as highway design changes and as vehicles change (i.e. the introduction of antilock brakes). Road construction sites are particularly prone to accidents, yet the most common approach by state legislatures is to simply increase speeding fines in construction zones. We suspect this strategy has negligible impact on highway safety. A better strategy would be to make it illegal to pass another vehicle on the highway after the first construction zone warning sign. Indiana lawmakers approved such legislation two years ago, and Missouri just passed a similar law. These laws correctly identify and address a specific unsafe driving practice that causes traffic backups and creates an unsafe driving environment. When laws have a direct and recognizable relationship to highway safety, when they apply to everybody, and when they are enforced, driving behavior will improve and we will have fewer accidents.

Overlooked, sometimes, are the ways that professional truckdrivers encourage safe motorist behavior on the highway, including within construction zones. Attached to my comments is a recent editorial from a Texas newspaper entitled “When Truckers Police the Roads.” (See this article on page 62 of this issue.) This article describes the way in which truckers work with each other to prevent passing within construction zones and to ensure that prevailing speed of traffic through construction zones is within the speed limit. The author closes the piece by saying, “I don’t know how highway patrolmen feel about what these truckers are doing, and I don’t know or care whether they are legal, but I’ll tell you that the vast majority of motorists out there on our interstates certainly appreciate their efforts to maintain order where a small percentage of imbeciles don’t mind causing chaos.”

OOIDA suggests that FMCSA devise state mandates to improve passenger vehicle driver safety and awareness. Federal funding of state enforcement should be conditioned on a state’s mandatory school-based driver education program and a graduated driver’s license for teenagers. The agency should seek other ways to ensure that states improve their driver training requirements. This should include expanding the No-Zone programs to cover other areas of conflict between cars and trucks. Programs such as “Trucker Buddy” could be utilized as an additional vehicle for communicating to the public.

Any time cars and trucks “interact” on the road, safety is compromised. Unpredictable automobile drivers maneuvering around trucks create a stressful and unsafe driving environment for both car and truck drivers. Two particular state policies create this dangerous situation. One is the policy of split speed limits – different speed limits for cars and for trucks. On highways with split speed limits, cars trying to exercise their “right” to drive faster end up cutting in and out from between the slower trucks. Instead of all traffic flowing predictably at the prevailing rate of speed, traffic is unpredictable. Under these conditions, it is difficult for truckdrivers to anticipate the actions of automobile drivers and make safe driving decisions accordingly. OOIDA does not advocate higher speed limits for trucks, but we do insist that eliminating split speed limits be a top safety priority to reduce truck-automobile interaction.

Another state policy that creates more interaction between cars and trucks is that of restricting trucks to the slower right lanes. Under this policy, automobiles are required to weave through a concentration of trucks in order to move from the entry/exit ramps to the left lanes. The traffic dynamic created by this policy, the interaction of cars and trucks operating at different speeds, makes for an unpredictable, dangerous driving environment. Lane restrictions on trucks cause more interaction with cars, and this policy should be banned.

FMCSA statistics that show cars more frequently contribute to the cause of accidents with trucks are confirmed by the anecdotal evidence of OOIDA members who describe the unpredictability of automobile drivers. In this respect, the frequently mentioned idea of creating separate roads for trucks is met with universal approval of OOIDA members. OOIDA understands, however, that this proposal is cost prohibitive at this time. For now, doing a better job of instructing automobile drivers on how to share the road with trucks and eliminating regulations that impose two different vehicle behaviors on the same road are the best bets for reducing interaction between automobiles and trucks.

Should we uncouple traffic enforcement from the inspection requirement?
Yes. In nearly every case, traffic stops are conducted at the roadside near, and sometimes partially on, the traveled portion of the roadway. Although this may be unavoidable in most instances, it is far too dangerous to conduct commercial driver and vehicle inspections in such a location. In fact, stopping a truck on the side of the highway, and getting out of a vehicle on the side of the highway are far more dangerous activities than many of the truck safety rules for which trucks are now pulled over.

In looking at the bigger picture, we question whether traffic enforcement programs that target only commercial vehicle drivers produce the best bang for the safety buck. Why not spend the money on enforcement that targets a specific unsafe action regardless of the type of vehicle being driven?

Should the partnership be expanded to localities?
Absolutely not. While there are local motor carrier enforcement programs equivalent to state programs in uniformity and application, they are rare. State control and strict adherence to the principles of uniformity and consistency are a must if state and local CMV enforcement programs are to contribute to the nationwide goals of improving safety. Few states have the will or resources to oversee local CMV enforcement activities. “Revenue courts” abound as a source of income for many local communities and counties. It is much less controversial for those localities to target out-of-state vehicles as a steady source of revenue. The safety rules are interpreted and enforced in fantastically different ways from locality to locality. Safety, uniformity and consistency take a backseat in these instances. A truck that passes inspection in one county in the morning might fail inspection hours later in the next state. The disparity in the focus of “safety enforcement” from locality to locality, and even state to state, make it extremely difficult for drivers to know what is expected of them. Uniformity is key to promoting good safety practices and standards. If uniformity is a goal of FMCSA, it should not expand its relationship with local enforcement agencies.

Should FMCSA have greater safety authority over intrastate carriers?

What leverage can be used to ensure every state joins PRISM? 
(Performance and Registration Information Systems Management)
The agency should require state participation in PRISM as a condition of MCSAP and highway funding.

How can help be provided to states to improve data collection and reporting?
The current program under which states have been merely encouraged to improve data collection has not been successful. DOT will probably need to use a carrot and/or stick approach to get better state cooperation with data collection. Either the MCSAP funds must be conditioned on data reporting or a certain percentage of MCSAP funds will need to be dedicated solely to data collection activities.

One problem that may need to be addressed is the different jurisdictional responsibilities of accident response officials. In some circumstances, it is the county’s, and not the state’s, emergency personnel who respond to accidents. We are certain that DOT will be interested in collecting data from incidents on both local and state roads. The cooperation of local enforcement and emergency personnel is an issue DOT will need to examine in order to get complete data.

Once the states are sufficiently motivated to collect data, DOT could be helpful by explaining its expectations for the data to be collected. Such guidance would include the creation of standard forms and training materials for those doing the collection. This would be a good subject for further input and public comments in which OOIDA would certainly participate.

What kind of incentives would encourage states to establish commercial passenger carrier safety programs?
The association offers no comment.

How can we end the out-of-service cycle?
The association believes strongly that the Out-of-Service Criteria (“OOSC”) should be codified in the FMCSRs. These are the standards used by enforcement personnel to identify conditions under which drivers and/or their vehicles are detained from going onto the highway. This use of the OOSC gives them the force and effect of law and should only be promulgated for that purpose following proper notice and comment rulemaking procedures. Research should be conducted to determine the relationship to out-of-service vehicles and their contribution to accidents. For example, the current criteria place a vehicle out of service for a flat tire; that’s one of 18 tires. I am unaware of any carrier that would willingly shut a truck down on the side of the highway, creating a safety hazard, when a driver could get a tire repaired safely at the next exit down the road.

Further, unworkable hours-of-service regulations for drivers contribute substantially to driver out-of-service rates. In many instances, strict adherence to the rules actually causes fatigue.

Brakes are one of the main reasons that drivers are put out of service, and they have been for at least four decades. OOIDA contends that serious engineering deficiencies exist within the brake systems of commercial vehicles. FMCSA should work with NHTSA and focus some of its R&T (Research and Technology) dollars to address this longstanding engineering deficiency once and for all. The agency should not rely just on manufacturers for information regarding braking and other component systems. The agency should expect and demand that the manufacturers fix this problem once and for all.

Equipment owners, and not always the drivers, must be held responsible for the road-worthiness of their equipment. The current system holds drivers exclusively responsible. Intermodal equipment is seldom or never maintained by its owners. This negligence guarantees that this equipment will never properly be maintained to meet safety standards, and yet drivers given that equipment to haul are the ones penalized by out-of-service orders and fines. Holding the equipment owner responsible will greatly improve upon the out-of-service rate of this equipment.

What kind of R&T program could give a big breakthrough in fatality reductions?
OOIDA firmly believes that the expenditure of funds for R&T research is spending for spending’s sake until we understand the true causes of accidents involving CMVs. Although there is no shortage of anecdotal opinion on the primary causes of accidents, there is little consensus beyond the fact that there has been no thorough collection and analysis of data on the problem. Until we really understand the problem, how can we expect any big breakthrough in fatality reductions?

Part of the data and information collection effort must include an active outreach program to drivers. Drivers are the most underutilized source of information on the trucking business. If you want to get a jump-start on what causes accidents and where they are likely to occur, why not ask professional drivers? Drivers with millions of accident-free miles have a great deal to contribute, yet are an untapped resource.

Driving a truck is one of the most dangerous jobs in our country. Safety is a primary concern of OOIDA members who own and operate their own trucks. OOIDA encourages DOT to actively solicit the ideas and opinions of drivers for suggestions of what kinds of technology would help them do their job safer. Most often, however, they will tell you that the big problems that need to be addressed do not need a technology solution. One example cited frequently by drivers is the lack of parking spaces in many areas of the country. A less costly, low-tech solution would solve this problem nicely and help drivers get the rest they need when they decide they need it. It is frustrating to OOIDA to see such cost-effective safety improvements overlooked for more spending on high-tech projects that are of questionable value to the driver.

How can our agency’s R&T results best be transferred to the transportation community?
If the DOT were to actively solicit and act upon the opinions of drivers as to what kinds of R&T projects would be the most helpful to the safe operation of a truck, then the agency should not have a problem transferring them to the transportation community. Too often technology developed for the transportation industry is the kind that would impose costs on truckers, spies on truckers, and otherwise does not help a driver do his or her job.

For example, electronic toll collection devices are being used to automatically mail speeding tickets. Satellite tracking devices of motor carriers are being used by law enforcement to check hours-of-service compliance and by motor carriers to make sure that drivers maximize their available hours and even wake up drivers who are not. Weigh station bypass systems are used to collect revenue from legal trucks. These technologies may be introduced with a PR campaign that they will help drivers, but if they continue to be used against drivers, they will be rejected by the industry.

If FMCSA pursues technology to address real problems or needs of motor carriers, it will have little problem transferring R&T results to the industry.

Should the national motor carrier safety program be supported with dedicated funding?
In some circumstances, dedicated funding will be necessary to ensure cooperation of the states for some programs. The interstate nature of the trucking business requires the oversight of the federal government. The roadside enforcement duties, however, fall primarily within the police power of the states. States do not always have the national interests in mind when exercising their police power or when making transportation policy. States usually have safety and revenue motives for enforcing motor carrier safety laws. They have few motives to form policies that particularly help the interstate trucker. The majority of men and women who drive through a particular state are not typically within the constituency of that state’s elected officials. OOIDA believes this is the primary reason that states have been closing rest areas and declining to create new rest areas in areas where they are needed. For programs where the national interest in the safe flow of interstate commerce supercedes the parochial interests of states, dedicated funding may be necessary.

In conclusion, while we contend that the overall safety performance of truckers is exceptional, we are not content with the status quo or confident that safety will not deteriorate. It is time we stop turning our heads from the root causes of safety problems in the industry.

Trucking is an industry of small businesses and owner-operators. They dominate the industry and provide virtually everything we need. Yet the economics for small-business truckers and the nation’s many good professional drivers have been declining for years. Over the past 18 months more than 5,000 trucking companies have failed and an unbelievable 200,000 trucks were repossessed because their owners could no longer stay on a tread mill that keeps speeding up. Financial stability plays an unquestionable role in safe trucking.

The typical owner-operator has 18-20 years of experience in the safe performance of his craft and in meeting the needs of the nation. These folks won’t be around forever, and we are concerned with who will replace them.

I doubt the motoring public and the populace in general would find much comfort in knowing that they share the road with drivers of 40-ton and heavier vehicles that are compensated at fast-food wages for all the hours they work. I suspect most of the public would hope a driver with years of safe driving experience is behind the wheel of each truck, and they would want that driver to stay there for a career.

We will always have hours-of-service violations and tired drivers as long as drivers have to spend 30-40 hours each week on loading and unloading docks. We will always have trucks driving faster and longer than they should as long as shippers and brokers can coerce drivers to meet unrealistic schedules and be paid only for the miles they drive. We will always have unsafe truckdrivers on the highways as long as 100 percent turnover of drivers is the industry norm, and drivers are considered a disposable commodity instead of a valued resource to motor carriers. Finally, there will be safety problems if motor carriers continue to pass off their responsibility to the government for screening and monitoring the actions of their employees. We can do better and we should start right now.