Short Takes

Dick Larsen
Senior Editor

Big Brother wrong: The AAA and the American Insurance Association recently urged the use of event data recorders in vehicles. The devices are supposed to record information related to crashes. AIA says research indicates that such data would help improve vehicle safety. But Maine Gov. John Baldacci might have a different view. After the SUV carrying the governor crashed recently, an onboard recorder indicated his seat belt was not buckled. But his driver, a state patrolman, recalled unbuckling the injured governor’s belt. And a doctor said the injuries were consistent with being belted during a crash. Moreover, the driver said the governor’s car was going 55 mph; state police pegged it at 55 to 65, while the recorder set the speed at 71 mph.

Smart card IQ test: The FMCSA and other groups recently tested intelligent transportation systems. The goal: to track all U.S. hazmat shipments. The testing was of smart cards along with fingerprint scanners to validate driver identities and record drop-off, pickup and truck start-up. The cards are integrated with a global login system, which records each verification event and supposedly alerts dispatchers if an unauthorized person attempts to operate the truck. FMCSA is also looking at braking systems that can be controlled remotely by dispatchers. California tried that one: Police cars in the desert ran into the back of rigs equipped with special bumpers that when bumped, stopped the truck. How smart is that?

Snooze alarm: NHTSA is studying “driver drowsiness” in commercial trucking as part of a project to develop drowsiness detection devices. Joseph Kanianthra, director of NHTSA’s office of vehicle safety research, said the agency had completed research to determine what “metrics” contribute to drowsiness. Stop the presses — they include “eyelid movement” and the “full eye closing.” NHTSA is reportedly now preparing to test several systems on the road.

FMCSA down the pike: What kind of an agency might FMCSA be in five or 10 years? Among the possibilities: Drivers with health-related problems may find it harder to get a CDL; a national database might be set up containing drivers’ medical histories, drug test results and driving records; and there may be more use of onboard technology for safety and terrorism prevention. FMCSA also wants to regulate shippers, and it may allow a waiver of HOS rules in times of extreme congestion or during natural disasters. Motor carriers, motor coach and insurance companies, state enforcement and regulatory agencies and others met with FMCSA’s Office of Research and Technology last fall to come up with 125 recommendations for future action. Drivers, apparently, were not asked to contribute.

Good news, bad news: The U.S. DOT has gotten somewhat better the past four years at completing congressionally mandated rules, but some rules dating as far back as 1987 are still pending, Rep. James L. Oberstar, D-MN, the ranking member on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said. “The good news is that the secretary and his top lieutenants have made it a priority to clear their rulemaking backlog, and I applaud them for making significant progress since our 2000 investigation. The bad news is that there are still a number of rules that have languished for more than a decade,” Oberstar said.

Shipping rules delayed: New security rules are being delayed for most cargo shippers because the government must adapt its computer software, the Homeland Security Department said. The cargo rules require electronic manifests identifying freight shipped by truck, rail, plane and ship to be sent to customs officials before the goods reach the border. “We recognized right from the very beginning we had to make the system more efficient,” said John Considine, director of cargo verification for Customs and Border Protection.

Relief from NAFTA: Sen. Max Baucus, D-MT, wants to make truck drivers who lose work as a result of NAFTA eligible for the same benefits manufacturers get when they lose jobs as a result of trade policy. The bill — S2157, which has 17 co-sponsors — amends the Trade Act of 1974 to extend the Trade Adjustment Assistance program to include the services sector. “This bill provides TAA benefits … to workers who lose their jobs due to competition from imported services. For example, if a U.S. truck driver loses his job because his employer loses routes to a Mexican-domiciled trucking company, the U.S. driver would be eligible for TAA.”

Truckers should pay, shipping lines say: A South Carolina State Ports Authority proposal to charge a security fee of $1 per foot of a ship’s length has drawn opposition from steamship lines who say the cost should be shared by truckers and others. The surcharge, which would be the first in the nation, could take effect in July. It’s expected to generate $1 million a year to cover increased port security costs. Shipping lines, in a letter to the authority, say the fee should be spread out so cargo owners, truckers, rail carriers, stevedores and others pay as well.