Is FMCSA cooking the numbers?

by Lou Smyrlis

If you haul into the US no doubt the firestorm of debate raging right now over the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s (FMCSA) new proposed hours-of-service rules for trucking has captured your interest. And possibly left you scratching your head too.

You can read all about the proposed changes and the industry’s reaction in this issue. What I’m concerned about are the motives behind what the stakeholders are saying.

The American Trucking Associations has come out all guns blasting, basically accusing the FMCSA of cooking the numbers on fatigue-related truck crashes in making its case for stricter hours-of-service. Now, I have to tell you, over the years I’ve learned to take what the ATA says with a grain of salt. Previous warnings of the industry’s demise because of some legislative change or other have proved rather exaggerated. And, let’s be honest, the ATA’s politics are distinctly Republican flavoured (its president Bill Graves is a former Republican Governor). If you’ve attended any of ATA’s national get-togethers, I think you would agree with me. The ATA is naturally disposed towards not agreeing with any legislation brought in by a Democratic government.

But that in itself doesn’t mean that the ATA’s criticism of the proposed hours-of-service rules should be dismissed as merely bipartisan bickering.

To place the need for such legislation in perspective, since the current hours-of-service rules were introduced in 2004, the trucking industry in the US has seen crash-related fatalities decline 33% from 2003 levels while both fatality and injury crash rates have reached historic lows.

Is the FMCSA attempting to fix something that isn’t broken, as the ATA charges, and cooking the numbers to make the situation look worse than it really is? The ATA has certainly made some accusations that I would love to see the FMCSA respond to.

The ATA says that in the legislative proposal’s cost-benefit justification, the FMCSA inflated its estimation of the percentage of fatigue-related crashes in two ways. First it overstated the percentage of single-vehicle truck crashes (which are more likely to be fatigue-related) compared to multi-vehicle crashes. In fact, the FMCSA doubled the weight given to single-vehicle truck crashes in its large truck crash causation study.

Second, the ATA charges that FMCSA is treating any crash in which fatigue is listed as an “associated factor” as a fatigue-related crash. Yet that contradicts the FMCSA’s own report to Congress, in which it stated “No judgement is made as to whether any factor is related to a particular crash, just whether it was present.”

Changing the way it looks at the data, the FMCSA has been able to nearly double the number of truck-involved crashes caused by fatigue. Back in 2008, the FMCSA believed about 7% of truck crashes involved fatigue (even though the best data on fatigue showed only a 2.2% relationship, according to the ATA.) Now, however, the FMCSA has upped that figure to 13% – hence making it look like there is a need to revisit hours-of-service regulations.

Both safety and efficiency must be taken into consideration when drafting hours-of-service legislation and, within reason, safety must trump efficiency. But when it does it must be based on solid science. Unless the FMCSA has solid answers to ATA’s accusations, its numbers, and hence its motives, appear suspect.

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