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New FMCSA administrator clear about one thing: the roads will be safer

Summing up the agenda of the new chief of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration can be done in one word: safety.

John H. Hill took over the reins of FMCSA in early August. Before that, Hill had been assistant administrator and chief safety officer for the administration.

But, his focus on safety issues facing truckers started long before his time at FMCSA. It goes all the way back to his days with the Indiana State Police.

He was with the Indiana State Police from 1974 to 2003, where he was the commander of the commercial vehicle enforcement division from 1989 to 1994 and again from 2000 to 2003. He also commanded the field enforcement and logistics divisions.

During that time on the road, Hill became all too familiar with the devastation families faced following a truck wreck.

In his first days leading the agency, Hill took some time out to talk to Land Line Magazine about his focus on safety and how that plays into his agenda as FMCSA administrator.

“One thing that I want to stress to everyone here is that this is all about people,” Hill said about his upcoming first meeting with FMCSA staffers. “It’s not all about numbers. Any time there is a wreck – that is someone’s father, brother, mother, friend …”

To drive home his point, he talked about the highly publicized wreck in Indiana in which two college students were misidentified – first, with one identified as dead and the other in critical condition in ICU before the mix-up was discovered – and how it hit particularly close to home for Hill.

Hill went to college with some of the parents of the students involved in the wreck.

“The mission for FMCSA is to reduce commercial vehicle crashes and injuries on our nation’s highway,” Hill said. “That is to be our primary mission.”

FMCSA accomplishes this through a combination of regulations, enforcement and education. The relatively young agency has been directed by Congress to take on safety issues head-on and it’s a task Hill is taking to heart.

He not only talked with Land Line about a variety of current regulations and several upcoming regulations – and how they will all work together to improve safety compliance – but how he is committed to targeting those in the industry who choose to work outside the regulatory wire.

One key focus for Hill in improving safety will be driver actions.

He said he is convinced from looking at the data that FMCSA has to make sure the enforcement effort is tailored toward drivers who choose not to comply with the regulations.

“I want our enforcement to be tailored toward the problem areas. I want our emphasis directed to where people are being killed, to where people are being injured,” he said. “We have to focus more on the driver equation in that process. So, we’re going to be doing that. That’s what I’m committed to. I’m telling you right now that’s what we have to do to start driving the numbers down.”

Hill said those enforcement efforts will take a combination of technology and education.

It’s not just the individual truckers who choose to ignore the regulations that are squarely in the cross hairs of FMCSA. Hill is also ready to go after the “bad actors” – those companies who have horrible safety records and somehow manage to either stay in business or keep reopening under new names.

“This problem will be addressed through the SAFETEA-LU implementation in which we’re required to track these bad actors,” Hill said.

SAFETEA-LU, the highway funding legislation signed into law in August 2005, directs FMCSA to write two new regulations targeted at bad actors and for the agency to go after these types of carriers.

Two new regulations mandated in the legislation are “revocation of operating authority” and “pattern of safety violations by motor carriers.”

“These rules will tighten our ability to track these bad actors that come in and out of business all the time,” he said, “and those are the ones we’re going to go after.”

Hill encouraged truckers who deal with companies like this to call the FMCSA hotline – 1-888-368-7238.

“We take these calls very serious,” he said, “even if they are anonymous.”

Calls to the hotline are investigated by FMCSA. Hill said the more details a caller can provide, the better.

“The regulations are very specific, motor carriers cannot force non-compliance,” he said.

Hill remembered his days as a trooper and time spent in commercial vehicle enforcement.

He said it was not all that uncommon for a trucker to encourage a closer look at a brake, or some other piece of equipment, that was in need of repair.

“We’d put the vehicle out of service and it would get repaired,” Hill said. “But, it shouldn’t have to come to that.”

Hill said tips on the hotline – or at the scale house – must be acted on.

“We will be working with the states to make sure those complaints are addressed,” he said.

Safety carrier reviews play a big role in enforcing compliance and will do so even more in the future.

“Frankly, right now when we go into a carrier it’s quite a lengthy process,” Hill said.

That lengthy process can hinder the number of reviews FMCSA staffers are able to conduct each year – which could allow more non-compliant carriers to slip through the cracks.

But, that’s all set to change. FMCSA is working under an initiative that will eventually lead to an increase in the number of compliance reviews conducted each year by FMCSA staffers.

“By 2010, we will put in place a new review process that will allow us to look at more carriers, maybe do it in an expedited manner, so that we can still look at the key safety issues,” Hill said. “But, when we go into the carrier we will know what areas we need to target. That way our enforcement, our investigation, will target their deficiencies.”

For the time being, FMCSA staffers, under Hill’s direction, are in the process of rewriting the driver training rule – the one that the U.S. District Court of Appeals tossed back to the agency for revision.

Hill sees the driver training regulation as yet another cog in the regulatory wheel that will move the agency toward improving highway safety.

FMCSA has a plate full of responsibility and several directives from Congress that Hill is more than willing – and ready – to tackle, even though there are some challenges.

“One of the biggest problems we have is a limited number of resources, but have a growing industry,” he said. “In the midst of that (growth) we have to rely on other agencies,” he said.

He said agency staffers will be working closely to ensure the mission and focus of FMCSA on improving safety is embraced and fully implemented.

“It’s too important an issue to not have everyone on board,” he said.

jami_jones@landlinemag.com

Aug/Sept Digital Edition