Fifty shades of FMCSA

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The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) draws criticism from someone for everything it does. That’s natural, and FMCSA is hardly the only federal agency to suffer this fate. FMCSA often deserves the complaints it gets, but what you might think of as FMCSA really isn’t a single agency but rather more of a federation– a national agency with regional offices and, more to the point, state law enforcement officials acting in FMCSA’s name.

Consider that the Motor Carrier Safety Assistance Program (MCSAP), which provides grants to states to conduct roadside inspections, traffic stops, safety audits, commercial driver’s licensing and more, represents nearly 55% of the entire FMCSA budget. So quite literally, most of the work done by FMCSA– at least in terms of dollars spent– is done by state agencies and officers.

In theory, MCSAP and the conditions attached to its grants ensure that FMCSA and states work in lockstep to provide consistent, fair enforcement of regulations and execution of standards. In practice, that doesn’t always happen. Regulations are subject to interpretation by state agencies.

Case in point: Just this week, FMCSA published regulatory guidance on a very narrow issue, albeit one quite important to the individuals affected. In general, the federal motor carrier safety regulations require that interstate commercial motor vehicle drivers be able to read and speak English well enough to converse with the general public and respond to official inquiries. It’s a requirement that dates back nearly 80 years. 

Since early 2013, FMCSA has granted 60 hearing-impaired drivers exemptions from the hearing standards and is considering exemptions for another 70. Persons who are extremely hearing-impaired may not be able to speak clearly, either. Some hearing-impaired drivers with exemptions have notified the National Assn. of the Deaf that they have been told by state licensing agency officials that they do not meet the English language requirement because they do not speak.

In its new guidance, FMCSA clarified that drivers holding the hearing exemption satisfy the language requirement as long as they can read and write in English.

The hearing exemption issue isn’t directly related to MCSAP, but it does illustrate an important reality: The policies set by FMCSA’s Washington headquarters often matter less than what happens on the ground in 50 separate states.

Enforcement practices and priorities vary from state to state, and those differences have national consequences. Under the Compliance, Safety, Accountability program, for example, FMCSA compares carriers based on similar fleet size and inspection activity, but some carriers suffer relative to others because, for example, they operate in states known to crack down more on speeding than others. And states and even individual law enforcement officers might have their own interpretations of what constitutes a violation.

Compounding this frustration is the lack of an effective appeals process when carriers believe states have erred. The DataQs system allows carriers to challenge mistakes made by officers during roadside inspections or by state agencies in submitting data to FMCSA. But decisions on DataQs challenges rest in the very states whose errors or interpretations carriers are challenging. So while the system may be fine for correcting clerical mistakes, it is practically useless for ensuring a consistent application of FMCSA regulations across all 50 states.

Despite the fact that MCSAP activities consume more than half the agency’s budget, nobody pays much attention to it. For example, the Dept. of Transportation’s Office of Inspector General has never conducted an audit of the program. So we don’t really know how closely states follow the requirements set by MCSAP.

Nor do we have a clear sense of whether MCSAP produces desired results even when states follow its rules. For example, in 2005 Congress changed the rules on reimbursing states for enforcement to allow them to get grant money for traffic stops involving commercial motor vehicles even if the officer didn’t conduct an inspection. Only a tiny fraction of law enforcement officers are certified to conduct motor carrier safety inspections, so the idea was to encourage far greater interaction between highway patrols and heavy trucks.

But something troubling happened. From fiscal 2007 through fiscal 2013, the number of inspections conducted following traffic stops plummeted by more than 48%. Without further investigation, we can’t be sure that this drop resulted from the MCSAP change, but it certainly seems likely. It may be that in exchange for this reduction we have seen a surge in speeding tickets and other moving violations involving large trucks and that the net effect has been positive. But we don’t really know that because FMCSA doesn’t have that data, although it says it is working with states to get it.

These issues don’t raise the passions that topics like electronic logs or hours-of-service do, but we must recognize the vital role states play in FMCSA’s safety mission. It’s time for a thorough investigation of how well FMCSA and states work together to make our roads safer.

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