Some final thoughts

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Imposing … tougher standards will ensure that new entrants are fully aware and compliant with federal safety regulations, aiding in the continued reduction of highway crashes and fatalities on our nation’s highways." –Outgoing FMCSA Administrator John H. Hill

John Hill’s tenure as chief administrator of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) is now pretty much officially at an end, though his involvement with commercial truck and bus safety issues is going to continue as he transitions to the private sector.

A week ago, Hill sat down with reporters for a review of his time as head of FMCSA and also to look at some of the issues facing the agency in the months and years ahead as it transitions to new leadership. Though I’ve covered that event in this space before, I wanted to revisit it one last time, for he made many interesting points (whether you agree with them or not) about the future of safety initiatives in the trucking industry.

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On the continuing reduction in truck-car collision statistics: “The actual numbers and the accident rate per miles driven continue to go down – and I’m encouraged by that,” he said. “Yes, the economy is down and some of those [falling accident] numbers are due to that economic decline, but only some. We’ve done a lot more work on the enforcement side of the house, with increases in [carrier safety] compliance reviews, truck inspections, and safety audits. That’s been a critical step.”

On cross-border trucking: “I would say it’s wise to let our cross-border trucking pilot program [with Mexico, allowing approved Mexican carriers to operate on all U.S. roads] continue for another two years,” Hill said. “The reason is it would allow us to build up a good body of safety numbers. Once we have all that data and analyze it, then make a decision about the border. I’d love to see them [the Obama administration] do that, but if I were a betting man, I’d say the outlook is grim [for the program].

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On the tepid response to Mexican carriers to the cross-border pilot program: “We had low participation due to all the uncertainty about the program,” Hill noted. “It’s a purely dollars and cents decision for them. They are looking at a $9,000 annual increase in their insurance premiums per truck, yet they didn’t want to make that investment when [the U.S.] Congress said it wanted to kill the program. We have several [Mexican] carriers ready to go, but they don’t want to make the investment with the program in doubt.”

On the safety concerns with heavier trucks: “First – and this is important – FMCSA does NOT have jurisdiction over size and weight issues. That being said, there are some safety concerns that need to be addressed with heavier trucks. NHTSA’s [National Highway Traffic Safety Administration] commercial truck stopping distance rulemaking, calling for reduced stopping distance by 20% to 30%, is going to be very important consideration in all of this. When I was a [Indiana state police] officer, I saw trucks in accidents that exceeded 100,000 pounds – and they caused horrific damage. So braking force and [cargo] securement issues with heavier trucks need to be addressed. The speed limit issue also needs to be looked at: to my mind, you can’t have a 97,000 pound truck going 68 miles per hour. You also need experienced drivers at the wheel – not just any driver can handle heavier trucks.”

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On whether the states or the federal government should take the lead in safety strategy: “States are going to be asked to do a lot more with a lot less in the months ahead,” said Hill. “That’s a reflection of the funding debate we’ll have as reauthorization of the Highway Bill gets underway. The current Highway Bill expires in September 2009 and the safety question is whether you build up FMCSA staff to address [truck and bus] safety or give that money to the states. Answering that requires cost-benefit analysis – who can do it best. There’s no single answer either. Some states are given money in grants to improve highway safety enforcement, yet are under a hiring freeze, so there’s a problem there. Costs vary from state to state – enforcement efforts cost more in California than Wyoming or Montana. So Congress will have to look at this – where do you get the best investment [in safety] for the money you’ll be spending over the next six years.”

On the approach the next FMCSA chief administrator should take: “The person who comes into this job needs to get out and meet the people that do the work,” Hill stressed. “Half of our budget goes to state grants, so they’ve got to get out and spend time with enforcement [personnel] at the state level. They need to understand what the challenges and the problems are. You also need to get out within the agency and talk to the staff regularly – they are the ones in front of the issues.”

Interesting perspectives from the man in charge of maintaining and improving commercial vehicle and bus safety in the U.S. Now his duties fall to a new person. We’ll see where things go from here.

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