New FMCSA promises action on truck safety in the U.S.

by Daniel Joyce

While many people still refer affectionately to the U.S. Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC), that agency has been out of existence for almost five years. Beginning in 1996, the duties of the ICC were transferred to the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), an agency within the Department of Transportation.

Now there is another change. Effective Jan. 1, 2000, the Department of Transportation established the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) to carry out many of the functions formerly handled by the FHWA and the ICC.

The primary mission of the FMCSA is to prevent commercial motor vehicle-related fatalities and injuries. Several functions of the FHWA were transferred to the FMCSA for just that purpose, including the development of motor carrier safety programs, regulatory compliance and enforcement powers, licensing and insurance matters (including the insurance of operating authorities), and the development of policies and guidelines regarding Canadian and Mexican carriers.

In February 2000, the FMCSA published a Safety Action Plan. The Plan followed an announcement in 1999 that established a national goal of reducing truck and commercial passenger fatalities by 50 per cent over 10 years, or by the end of calendar year 2009. In 1998, there were 5,374 fatalities and more than 127,000 injuries in the U.S. resulting from traffic crashes involving commercial motor vehicles. To address the goal of reducing the fatalities by 50 per cent within 10 years, the FMCSA announced initiatives in four major areas:

increasing enforcement and the targeting of high-risk carriers and commercial vehicle drivers;

increasing safety awareness among the driving public and in the motor carrier industry;

improving safety information systems and commercial motor vehicle technologies;

strengthening federal commercial vehicle equipment and operating standards;

In the area of enforcement, federal investigators will increase compliance reviews of high-risk carriers and impose higher penalties for violators. The agency hopes to involve individual states in a nationwide effort to link vehicle registration and safety fitness. The federal government will also provide more funding to the states to increase roadside inspections.

In the area of safety awareness, the FMCSA will fund programs to increase federal and state inspector skills in connection with crash data collection, vehicle inspections, and drug law enforcement. It is also reviewing safety rating procedures with a view toward revising the system. Finally, the FMCSA will continue its study on fatigue recognition and management and offer seminars for commercial drivers and safety personnel.

This ties into the continuing saga of the proposed changes in hours of service regulations. With minor changes, the hours-of-service regulations have not changed much since the ICC first established them in 1939. At the time of the demise of the ICC on Dec. 29, 1995, the FHWA was required to begin rulemaking procedures on hours-of-service rules by March of 1996, with final rules to be adopted in 1999. That, of course, didn’t happen, and it is anyone’s guess whether or not we will even have new rules by 2001.

In the area of cross-border activity, the FMCSA has recognized that motor carrier safety experience at the Canadian border is vastly different from that at the Mexican border. They have recognized that Canada and the U.S. have a long history of working together to develop equivalent motor carrier safety regulatory and enforcement regimes. The similarity of the safety rules in both countries, and the attitude of the motor carrier industries in both countries, is perhaps best illustrated by the fact that out-of-service rates for Canadian carrier operations in the U.S. are comparable to U.S. out-of-service rates. Accordingly, the focus on the northern border will be to achieve reciprocal safety rating procedures and standards, and to further harmonize safety regulatory programs.

Many of these issues have been discussed and proposed for more than four years, since the demise of the ICC and the creation of the new regulatory system. However, with the creation this year of the FMCSA, it appears that things are finally moving toward action, rather than proposals. We will keep you advised. n

– Daniel Joyce can be reached at Hirsch and Joyce, Attorneys at Law, at 716-564-2727.

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