Former FMCSA chief speaks out on HOS, mainstream media and more

By Sandi Soendker, Land Line editor-in-chief | Thursday, June 26, 2014

Former top trucking official Annette Sandberg left the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration in 2006, leaving a legacy of a plummeting rate of truck-involved fatalities and a reputation of being smart, tough and well-spoken.

Sandberg has stepped back in the public spotlight with her June 17 letter to the nation’s lawmakers supporting the Collins’ amendment, stating that it would “make the roads safer.” Her even stronger message is that new hours-of-service implemented in July 2013 were done so “without the benefit of proper scientific research.”

In a letter to the chairmen and ranking members of the Senate Appropriations Committee and the Senate Transportation Appropriations Subcommittee, the former administrator for the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration expresses her strong support for Sen. Susan Collins’ amendment to the 2015 Senate Transportation and Housing and Urban Development bill. The amendment, adopted in June by a bipartisan 21-9 vote, would provide temporary relief from two revisions to the HOS regulations governing truckers that took effect last July that are having “unintended consequences.” 

Sandberg believes that the restrictions in the 2013 HOS rule preventing drivers from using the restart more than once a week and requiring the restart time to include two periods between 1 a.m. and 5 a.m. was a change that was “done without the benefit of proper scientific research.”

She stated that that restart changes are “hurting highway safety, as well as the economy” and recommends suspending them – while keeping the remaining HOS – in order to more fully study the impact of “shifting more truck traffic to daylight hours.”

Sandberg served 18 years with the Washington State Police, six of those years as chief. She was the second administrator of the FMCSA, serving from 2003-2006. From 2003 to 2012, truck-involved fatalities dropped 22 percent, even as trucks drove an additional 50 billion more miles.

Why are those numbers inching back up? Sandberg – now a transportation, safety and security consultant – spoke to Land Line on Thursday, June 26, about that.

“There’s clearly more pressure on drivers, companies,” she said. “I don’t think the administration cares about the pace of regulation.”

When Sandberg was administrator, she inherited a huge backlog of regulations and recalls having specific internal discussion with the staff.

“You can only put out regulations at the pace the industry can handle them. If you put them out too fast, it overwhelms people and get even more frustrated.”

She doesn’t directly attribute that rush to regulate to fatal crashes and says there’s been no analysis – but she does think the current administration has “gone into it piecemeal, without good science and good data and they may be pushing companies and truckers the wrong way.”

What provoked Sandberg to speak out, to write the letter?

“I was sitting back, watching it all unfold and finally I could not,” she said.

Sandberg is fervent about public perception and the misinformation that currently plagues the trucking industry and makes no bones about her concerns. After the Tracy Morgan crash, she got a call from a reporter who wanted to do an hour-long show on the crash.

“I asked him if he had looked at Walmart’s record, because it’s really good. I said, ‘Do you know what the Collins amendment really does? Have you looked at the NTSB preliminary data?’ So I walked him through this and he said he didn’t think he would do the story.”

She said she knew a lot of good reporters, but was vexed that so many members of the press just don’t want to tell the truth.

“They don’t want to tell the other side of the story because it’s not sensational – yet they’ll run with all this garbage,” she said. “I thought, I don’t think I can sit by any longer and watch this play out because it’s not playing out the way it should. Nobody wants to hear the facts. That’s kinda what led to it. I read the New York Times articles and others and thought, how could you ignore the facts? I know they are being spoonfed by safety groups, by Joan Claybrook and others – but still, don’t you want to check your facts?”

It’s clear when you talk to Sandberg that she’s all about the facts, about making decisions only after collecting enough data to back your decisions with good science. Some of the HOS changes, she said, were made after a handful of drivers were looked at instead of a broader spectrum and said that lack of data is “appalling.”

“Was it really safe? I don’t think so. At least with the drivers I talk to,” she said. “There’s been a huge impact on how they do business.”

About her recent appointment to ATA’s board of the American Trucking Research Institute (ATRI), Sandberg said it’s an exciting move due to its mission to collect data.

“We need to be cautious and make sure we don’t’ make knee-jerk reactions,” she said. “We need to make sure we have good data. If we say it’s going to contribute to safety, we have to make sure, in fact, that it does.”

She said from the time she was chief of the state patrol in Washington, she has never believed in doing anything “knee-jerk.”

“One of the reasons I wrote the letter is the trucking critics – as I call them – were using that crash in New Jersey to try to fight this HOS change (the Collins amendment) and that crash had nothing to do with the change Sen. Collins is trying to make. And they use it shamelessly.”

“This is political opportunism of the worst kind,” she wrote in her letter, adding that “public policy should not be based solely on emotion.”

Sandberg is frustrated with those that use sensationalism to push an agenda instead of facts and in her conversation, circles back repeatedly to a simple guideline that is being ignored.

“We need to make sure we are using facts. If the facts bear out that we need to make a change, everyone would agree we need to make a change. Let’s get good data first.”

“Sometimes it takes longer than most people’s political life – that’s the way I would put it. We should be cautious as to how we use that regulatory power in D.C.”

With a viewpoint many regard as impeccably qualified, Sandberg sums it up:

“When you are looking at an industry like the trucking industry that operates on a very thin margin to begin with and drivers are already stressed, given the kind of work they do, why are we stressing them more? Especially if we don’t have good data.”

Related articles:
Collins amendment to suspend 34-hour restart changes passes committee
OOIDA call supporting Collins amendment draws 3,000 comments

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