NTSB chair questions effectiveness of CSA 2010

By Jami Jones, senior editor | Friday, February 19, 2010

The most recent incarnation of the NTSB Most Wanted list didn’t contain any big surprises for the trucking industry. The list still pushes for “black boxes” in all trucks, and the health of truckers remains a big concern.

But when the National Transportation Safety Board unveiled its Most Wanted Safety Improvements for 2010 on Thursday, Feb. 18, Chairman Deborah Hersman took FMCSA’s pet project of CSA 2010 to task.

Motor carrier operations
In the midst of a fairly routine meeting on the Most Wanted list, a meeting known for being critical of shortcomings by regulatory agencies, Hersman’s sharp line of questioning on the potential for CSA 2010 to effectively change anything certainly livened things up.

She voiced her obvious deep concern during the Safety Board’s discussion of a recommendation concerning improving the safety of motor carrier operations.

The NTSB recommendation is aimed at preventing motor carriers from operating if they put vehicles with mechanical problems on the road or unqualified drivers behind the wheel.

The Safety Board wants FMCSA to change the way safety fitness ratings are determined so that bad vehicle and driver performance alone would be enough to result in an overall unsatisfactory rating for the carrier – a recommendation made in 1999.

FMCSA’s move toward full implementation of CSA 2010 was acknowledged during the Safety Board meeting on Thursday. But the fact that it was not fully operational drew harsh criticism from members and especially NTSB Chairman Deborah Hersman.

“I don’t even know what to say,” Hersman said. “When I came to the Board in 2004, they started talking about 2010 – 2010 was going to be the solution to everything. And I really didn’t think that I was going to be here in 2010. But I am here and CSA (2010) is not.

“They committed to being ready at the beginning of 2010 … and now it’s going to be the end of 2010.”

In addition to the lack of a program, Hersman questioned its potential effectiveness on removing bad motor carriers from operation.

“What they’re really trying to do is more intervention strategies earlier in the process and not do full-blown compliance reviews. Our recommendation says that if you are adverse in driver (performance) alone – that should be sufficient to result in an overall unsatisfactory rating for the motor carrier,” she said.

“No published material that I have seen indicates to me that there will be more motor carriers (getting) unsatisfactory ratings, because they’re not going to be doing more full compliance reviews,” Hersman said.

NTSB staff was not able to quell Herman’s concerns that FMCSA would not be removing bad motor carriers from operation. Rather, she was simply told that NTSB would just have to “wait and see” if CSA 2010 would be successful or not.

Because the program is not fully operational – with some of it still needing to go through the rulemaking process – and serious concerns as to its possible effectiveness, the NTSB downgraded FMCSA’s response to “red,” indicating an unacceptable response to the recommendation.

The usual suspects
The other three recommendations targeting trucking under the “highway” category include the agency’s continued push for a 100 percent mandate for EOBRs, improved medical certification process, and the use of enhanced vehicle safety technology.

These three recommendations have been on the Most Wanted list for some time.

Electronic on-board recorders, or the so-called black boxes, were added back to the Most Wanted list in 2008. Oversight of medically unfit drivers has been on the radar since 2003 and vehicle collision avoidance technology joined the list in 2007.

Black boxes
This isn’t the first time NTSB has included the “black boxes” on its Most Wanted list. Agency officials included “event data recorders” on its list from 1997 until 2004. In 2004, the list was broken down into specific modes of transportations and the “black boxes” were no longer included on the list for the trucking industry.

Despite not being included on the Most Wanted list, NTSB officials continued to recommend the electronic devices and pushed FMCSA toward implementation – which started in January 2007.

In early 2007, FMCSA published a notice of proposed rulemaking on the use of EOBRs.

The agency proposed to mandate EOBRs for the bad actors in the industry along with incentives for voluntary use and that hasn’t set well to the NTSB.

Jennifer Morrison with the Office of Highway Safety, a division of NTSB, said the mandate doesn’t go far enough in the agency’s recent meeting to generate the 2010 Most Wanted list.

“This proposed rule would only affect about 930 of 700,000 registered motor carriers,” Morrison said, “or about one-tenth of 1 percent of all motor carriers.

“Because the recommendation requested that FMCSA require all interstate commercial motor carriers use EOBRs, we are disappointed that the (rulemaking) did not mandate the use of EOBRs industry wide.”

In a display of that displeasure, the NTSB left the recommendation to mandate the use of EOBRs in all truck rated “red,” which means there has been unacceptable response from FMCSA in satisfying the recommendation.

Medical oversight
In an effort to reduce what Dr. Rich Garber from the Office of Research and Engineering calls the number of drivers with “obvious physical deficiencies” from operating in interstate commerce, the NTSB has been pressing FMCSA to ratchet up medical oversight of truckers since 2003.

Through the years, NTSB has recommended that FMCSA develop comprehensive medical oversight programs that address examiner qualifications, adequacy of regulation, non-regulatory guidance, review and tracking of medical exams as well as improved enforcement and reporting of unfit drivers.

While FMCSA has made moves on a few of those areas, NTSB wants to see more action on tracking medical exams, implementing a review process to prevent bogus medical certificates from being issued and a requirement to report medical conditions that arise between certifications of which “health care provider and employers” are aware.

Because there have been some accomplishments on other recommendations, the NTSB upgraded the recommendation to yellow, meaning that FMCSA has shown “acceptable response” although “progressing slowly.”

Collision avoidance
The Safety Board has recommended the use of adaptive cruise control and collision warning technologies to improve highway safety.

According to testimony at the Safety Board meeting, a Department of Transportation analysis has shown that 48 percent of accidents could be prevented by the use of certain collision warning systems.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has been moving forward on research of existing technology and the interactions the systems require from the drivers. Field testing is expected to conclude in 2010.

The designation on this issue remains yellow, indicating an acceptable response.

To see the complete Most Wanted list, click here.

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