May 23 was an important day for the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. On that day, a rule exempting the agency from certain provisions of the Privacy Act of 1974 went into effect. The exemption, published in the Federal Register April 23 (Docket No. OST-96-1437), will help the agency conduct more thorough safety investigations of commercial motor carriers and their drivers.

Most importantly, it will enable the agency to conduct driver-specific safety analyses and reviews. Until now, this has not been the case.

Consider this example. A roadside inspector encounters a vehicle with a serious out-of-service defect, such as a broken brake drum. In addition, rust on the brake drum leads the officer to suspect that the defect has been present for some time. The officer uses a computer program to determine when and where the vehicle has been inspected in the past 60 days. It also shows whether the vehicle has previously been placed out of service for the same defect.

Such “previous inspection query” tools are important to determine whether carriers (or drivers) have violated out-of-service orders. This would represent a disqualifying offense, requiring enforcement officers to remove the driver from service on the spot. It also carries the likelihood of a significant fine.

The problem for enforcement officers, though, is that the information in this database is based on vehicle license plate numbers. There has been no way to do these kinds of queries based on driver's license numbers.

Current driver checks are limited to conditions such as whether a license is valid, suspended or revoked. It's more difficult to investigate the background of a driver with suspected multiple traffic (e.g., speeding, unsafe lane change, or reckless driving), vehicle or drug violations.

The Privacy Act exemptions will change all that. FMCSA software engineers are developing a tool that will do nationwide matches on driver's license numbers. The program will cross-reference the Motor Carrier Management Information System (MCMIS) safety database with the Commercial Driver License Information System (CDLIS) database. Roadside inspection officers will now have access to complete driver safety profiles immediately.

Why is this so important? To begin with, FMCSA has been instructed to be more proactive in identifying carriers and drivers that are imminent hazards to public safety. The new Privacy Act exemption will help the agency identify drivers with bad safety or inspection histories — even if they jump from carrier to carrier.

Here's how the ruling could help you. First, the agency has released a version of Provu (the Motor Carrier Profile viewing tool) that can sort information by driver name. Once you load your profile (carriers can receive only their own data), the software will show you, by driver, the number of multiple vehicle or driver infractions.

One carrier I work with has already benefited from this revision. The sorted profile data quickly identified a driver who had three “traffic enforcement” (e.g., speeding, unsafe lane change or failure to obey traffic warning device) violations within a 31-day period. The driver had not reported these to the supervisor because they were not out-of-service violations. This driver quickly became an ex-employee.

Second, and most important, this provision will require you to make similar improvements in identifying problem drivers. Can your current system combine multiple safety databases (e.g., inspections, MVRs and loss runs) to develop a total driver risk profile? Ideally, such capabilities should combine this information and quickly identify those in the high-risk category.

Once high-risk drivers are identified, it's important to implement aggressive driver-safety improvement or discipline programs to manage the issue.

The alternative is to let roadside enforcement officers do it for you. My guess is that the latter approach will carrier a greater cost and liability for your fleet.

Jim York is a senior risk engineering consultant at Zurich Insurance, Fredericksburg, Va.