Reform of FMCSA takes center stage in Senate subcommittee hearing

By Jami Jones, Land Line managing editor | Wednesday, March 04, 2015

If the Senate subcommittee hearing on FMCSA oversight had been a boxing match, the agency took its first blow right after the opening bell and was forced to battle off a full-blown assault throughout the duration of the hour-long hearing Wednesday.

The U.S. Senate’s Subcommittee on Surface Transportation and Merchant Marine Infrastructure, Safety, and Security of the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation held a hearing on the Oversight and Reform of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration on Wednesday, March 4.

Testifying at the hearing were Scott Darling, FMCSA acting administrator; Joseph W. Comé; deputy principal assistant inspector general for auditing and evaluation for the Office of the Inspector General; Susan Fleming, director of the U.S. Government Accountability Office; and Christopher Hart, acting chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board.

Subcommittee Chairman Sen. Deb Fischer, R-Neb., barely got the welcome and introductions out of the way before she drew first FMCSA blood.

“Members of Congress, independent agencies – including the GAO, the NTSB, and the DOT inspector general – and stakeholders have expressed serious concerns with the agency’s flawed approach in a number of areas,” Fischer said.

She quickly tackled the changes to the 34-hour restart rule the agency implemented without a congressionally mandated study. And when a study was finally released, it was one that did not research an adequate sample size of motor carriers.

Fischer then moved quickly to FMCSA’s Compliance, Safety and Accountability Program.

“Inaccurate CSA scores, publicly available online, have cost companies contracts and raised insurance rates. All of this has occurred without a clear correlation to increasing highway safety,” she said. “When confronted with these findings, FMCSA completely disregarded GAO’s recommendations. To address flaws in CSA implementation, major stakeholders, including law enforcement, requested that FMCSA remove CSA scores from public view.”

Fischer said she intends to author legislation to reform FMCSA and to ensure that the regulatory process is more inclusive to Congress and stakeholders. Her legislation will be guided by two core principles: guidance review and the regulatory framework going forward.

The first would require public, transparent periodic reviews of current guidance and the second would force FMCSA to conduct more “robust” cost-benefit analysis that includes carriers from a wide variety of business models.

After opening statements, the panel was given their chance to speak. While Darling’s testimony attempted to highlight the agency’s safety agenda and advancements on motor coach safety and industry oversight through the Motor Carrier Safety Assistance Program, the vast majority of the hearing had Darling deflecting criticism that came not only from members of the committee, but also from fellow panelists.

The GAO, OIG and NTSB representatives did not mince words on their criticism of the agency. Both the GAO and OIG struck out at the CSA program.

“GAO concluded that … challenges raise questions about whether FMCSA is able to identify and target the carriers at highest risk for crashing in the future,” Fleming told the subcommittee.

She went on to say that the GAO made recommendations on modifications to the program that would assist FMCSA in predicting future crash risk of motor carriers, but the agency disagreed and did nothing.

The Inspector General acknowledged that some of the recommendations made to FMCSA on CSA had been acted on, but the core objective – to intervene on at-risk motor carriers – was still lagging.

Implementation of CSA enforcement interventions remains a concern, largely because of delays in developing updated software for collecting documentation and monitoring interventions. At the time of the IG’s report, only 10 states were up and running and the agency didn’t anticipate full implementation of the intervention software until 2016.

NTSB’s representative echoed the IG’s concern with enforcement.

“The current compliance review process is inadequate and limits the FMCSA’s ability to remove unsafe carriers from our highways before they are involved in a catastrophic crash,” Hart told the committee.

It wasn’t a hearing that focused exclusively on CSA, nor was it exclusively critical of FMCSA.

There was encouragement from NTSB for FMCSA to move ahead with regulations in the areas of fatigue management, sleep apnea and electronic logs.

Also pressing for further regulation was Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J. The lawmaker referenced the wreck that injured comedian Tracy Morgan and killed one other in an attempt to push back against the recent rollback of changes to the 34-hour restart. Booker even advocated for increasing the insurance requirements.

Booker stood alone on the insurance issue among the senators in attendance, however.

Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., struck back on increasing the insurance requirements, underscoring that less than 1 percent of all crashes exceed the current amounts.

“The only ones who will benefit from increasing the insurance amounts are trial lawyers,” Daines said.

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