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The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) is being pressured from two sides on the issue of safety: A coalition of labor and safety groups is suing to force the agency to produce an entry-level driver training rule, while transportation industry groups are asking that motor carriers’ safety scores be removed from online public view.
‘Enough Is Enough’
The International Brotherhood of Teamsters joined with Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety and Citizens for Reliable and Safe Highways to file a lawsuit Sept. 18, 2014, against the Transportation Department’s Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA), seeking to compel the agency to issue a regulation on safety training for entry-level commercial truck drivers which includes behind-the-wheel instruction.
The plaintiffs are asking the court to order the agency to produce a proposed rule within 60 days of a court ruling and to issue a final rule within 120 days after the issuance of the proposed rule.
The plaintiffs argue that the DOT is more than 20 years late on producing the rule originally ordered by Congress in 1991, and is now nearly a year late in complying with the most recent Congressional deadline of Oct. 1, 2013.
“Congress’ most recent deadline has come and gone, almost another year has passed, and the agency still has not issued a proposed rule, let alone the final rule required by law. Indeed, the agency has made clear that it has not yet even decided whether to undertake notice-and-comment rulemaking or to conduct a negotiated rulemaking,” said Adina Rosenbaum, attorney for Public Citizen, representing the plaintiffs. “At some point, [the Court] must lean forward from the bench to let an agency know, in no uncertain terms, that enough is enough,” she said.
The FMCSA announced in August 2014 that it was exploring the idea of a negotiated rulemaking—when an agency invites representatives of interested parties to work with each other and the agency to develop a consensus draft of a proposed rule—on driver training standards.
More than eight years after the original 1993 deadline, safety organizations took the DOT to court, resulting in a settlement agreement whereby the department agreed to issue a final rule by 2004. “While it did issue a rule that year, the rule was grossly inadequate, requiring only 10 hours of classroom lectures, none of it on-the-road training,” the plaintiffs stated in a news release. The 2004 rule still stands.
In 2007, the FMCSA issued another proposed rule, but never finished it.
In 2012, Congress passed a second law mandating the agency to issue the entry-level safety training rule and specified that the rule had to include behind-the-wheel training.
The agency said that it is working on improving the 2004 rule.
“Safety is our top priority and FMCSA is working to improve upon the 2004 rule that is currently in place and implements entry-level driver training that includes behind-the-wheel instruction for operating large trucks and buses,” the agency said. “We have engaged the public in listening sessions and are bringing together stakeholders to collaborate on a new proposal that meets the requirements passed in the 2012 transportation bill and prepares drivers for the job.”
CSA Scores Not Reliable, Industry Critics Charge
In addition to the lawsuit, a total of 20 trade associations representing commercial truck and bus carriers have appealed to Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx to remove companies’ Compliance, Safety, Accountability (CSA) scores from the department’s public Safety Measurement System (SMS) website, stating that the data is flawed and harmful to companies’ reputations. The coalition cited recent government research in a letter urging Foxx to remove carriers’ safety scores from public view until the agency’s data methodology and quality are improved.
The CSA scores are generated from roadside inspections, reported crashes and the federal Motor Carrier Census to quantify performance in categories such as unsafe driving, hours-of-service compliance, vehicle maintenance and driver fitness. The scores can lead to enforcement actions and diminished business for carriers with poor rankings.
A February 2014 Government Accountability Office (GAO) report was critical of the system’s effectiveness in identifying high-risk carriers. An unrelated GAO report in May 2014 recommended against relying on such scores as an indicator of carriers’ safety performance.
“Our organizations understand and appreciate the merits of using safety measurements to publicly distinguish carriers that are involved in crashes or cited for violations that are related to crashes from those that are not,” the groups said in an Aug. 22, 2014, letter to Foxx. “Such measurements, if fair and accurate, could leverage the marketplace to further incentivize safe operating practices. … For these reasons, the needed improvements to support public display of accurate scores must be a high priority.”
The letter states that the GAO found that the FMCSA lacks sufficient safety performance information to reliably compare carriers. The report went on to say that the lack of data creates the likelihood that many CSA scores do not represent an accurate or precise safety assessment for a carrier. Moreover, the FMCSA identified many carriers as “high risk” that were not later involved in a crash, the industry groups asserted.
Rep. Lou Barletta, R-Penn., introduced legislation Sept. 22, 2014, that would order the FMCSA to stop publishing motor carriers’ safety scores compiled under the current system on its website and prevents these scores from being used as evidence in liability cases until the program is improved.
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