Where should the safety emphasis be placed - on the driver or on the machine?

By Reed Black, Land Line Now staff reporter

The federal government's already complicated system for rating the safety of motor carriers could get a lot more complicated if something called "Beyond Compliance" is adopted.

"Beyond Compliance" is the notion that if a carrier went beyond what federal regulations require and beefed up their safety program or put things like speed limiters or collision avoidance technology on its trucks, the motor carrier could improve its safety score despite its history of crashes.

The Fixing America's Surface Transportation Act requires the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration to explore the idea. In early January, the agency hosted a listening session in Louisville, Ky.

Small motor carriers and owner-operators made it clear they aren't keen on the idea.

Irwin Shires of Panther Premium Logistics was the first to step up to the microphone.

"One of the things we are most concerned with is making sure that any beyond compliance measure, or beyond compliance that a carrier does or performs, will genuinely benefit their scores and reflect in the ratings that are given to them in the future," Shires said.

"One of the ones we looked at very closely is obviously when you think of unsafe driving you think of excessive speed. When you have a fleet that's entirely owner-operator, it's difficult to convince them it's wise to put a speed limiter on a truck. How do you quantify that?"

Although Shires said Panther sees the speed-limiting technology as a benefit, he admitted its shortcomings.

"It's going to be difficult to convince them to drive west of the Mississippi where the speed limit is 75 plus. It holds true where the speed limit drops to 50 or 45, a 65-mile-per-hour speed limiter is not going to prevent speeding violations," Shires said.

A number of OOIDA members and representatives were at the session.

OOIDA Life Member Monte Wiederhold introduced a theme that others would repeat - that safety starts with the driver instead of high-tech devices.

"Some members of the trucking community are under the assumption that we can make trucks safer by loading the trucks with the latest gadgets and gizmos instead of spending money to train a driver or pay a driver a decent wage," Wiederhold told the panel.

"Unless you have been out of the country and not paying attention to the news, everyone knows about the Wal-Mart crash. That truck was equipped with the latest and greatest technology at the time - speed limiter, ELD and collision avoidance."

Wiederhold recounted the situation leading up to the crash when the driver had approximately 28 minutes to drive and 25 miles to go before he exceeded the 14 hour rule.

"Certainly he didn't crash on purpose, but maybe if he had been under the old 10-and-eight rule, which worked well before, maybe this wouldn't have taken place," Wiederhold said, alluding to the flexibility built into previous hours-of-service regulations.

"One other example I have is a few years ago, a truck on I-94, driving the speed limit with his cruise control engaged. The road was a sheet of ice. An accident had occurred a short distance ahead of him. He hit a car that had stopped to assist the motorist involved in the crash. He had some technology on the truck, but it didn't amount to a hill of beans."

Wiederhold told the FMCSA representatives that devices like electronic logs are not so much safety tools as they are tools used by large carriers to get more productivity out of their drivers.

Not everyone's agenda at being at the meeting was to weigh in on the validity of the program. One who stepped up to the microphone to offer comments was at the listening session more to pitch a "safety management" product.

OOIDA Life Member Woody Chambers, who drove for 45 years without an injury accident, followed up and brought the comments back to the topic at hand by highlighting even more shortcomings of the technology that would be used in any sort of Beyond Compliance program.

"The only technical equipment I have ever had on a truck is a speed limiter, and that was actually in the late '70s when I drove for a private fleet. I found it to be the most dangerous piece of equipment I had - not only not being able to gain speed to pass on two-lane roads but generally creating road rage on the interstates," he said.

"Let's face facts. … The reason these people crash more, and I don't think there's any argument here from anybody, is because they have less experienced drivers. Turnovers of 100 percent or better, there's no way they're going to get experienced drivers," Chambers said. "So until they change their business practices to reduce that turnover, I don't see anything changing. The figures will tell what's going on.

"If we're going to reward carriers for technology, let's figure out a way to reward carriers for installing competent, experienced drivers in their equipment."

The refrain against the Beyond Compliance program expanded into the cost any program will impose on motor carriers - especially for the small-business motor carriers.

A number of speakers brought that point up, including Trans Bridge Lines bus company President Thomas JeBran. Even though JeBran supports the concept of the program, he voiced concerns that it could be opening an unwanted door for the industry as well.

"I'm for the program. I'm just concerned that it will lead to more regulations. That they will take the best practices that we're using in motor coach and in the trucking industries and then make them rules that everyone is compelled to comply with. And some of the larger companies… can do some of it. But we all have limited resources, and I'm concerned about the smaller operators that don't have the luxury of having the extra income," JeBran said.

"Does it make them unsafe? Does it lead to them not being able to continue to operate their business?"

Finally, at the heart of the Beyond Compliance debate is the issue of man and woman versus machine.

Where should the safety emphasis be placed - on the driver or on the truck and its devices?

OOIDA Director of Regulatory Affairs Scott Grenerth addressed that.

"It doesn't matter if you've got the most advanced technology. You have got to have a human planning and making the right decisions with it, no matter what piece of technology it is," Grenerth said.

"Lane departure, speed limiters - for me I had none of that in my truck and I went way beyond a million miles and not one single accident. And I don't feel I need a gold sticker for that, honestly. That's how you operate. You make the right decisions, aware of the conditions around you. That's the way truckers dedicated to safety every day operate."

"We have the fact that it takes a time commitment, a time commitment that people are not willing to put in. We have carriers content to bring a new driver through the front door one week and out the back door the next week. That does not lead to safety. That does not create the 5 million accident-free drivers," Grenerth said.

To underscore the need to have trained drivers, humans, operating the trucks, Grenerth took aim at the self-driving cars.

"As recently reported in an article about self-driving cars, driving is a 'social game,'" he told the panel. "I have come to like that phrase.

"Self-driving cars are causing crashes. And it's because they don't understand that social aspect of driving… what's going on way ahead of you, what's going on behind you, what's going on two lanes over, who's coming down that 'get-on' ramp as drivers refer to it," he said.

"That is way beyond what the technologies can see. … I guarantee you, you never thought what kind of safety technology that bus or truck next to you has. You just want them to not hit you. That is what matters. That is what is important. Not even citations, violations, compliance. The result is, are you getting down the road safely," Grenerth told the panel.

In its present form, OOIDA considers Beyond Compliance to be a "pay to play" scheme -designed to let big carriers improve their safety scores by pouring money into devices instead of drivers.

And the all-important details of how carriers would be credited, and for what, remain to be worked out. LL