The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) is facing a major leadership change. Administrator Joseph Clapp announced in late November that he will retire “very soon”; Assistant Administrator and Chief Safety Officer Julie Cirillo retired on Jan 3, 2003. Annette Sandberg, deputy administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), has been named Interim Administrator at FMCSA. As far as trucking is concerned, however, she is a relative unknown.

These are difficult circumstances for a young agency still in the midst of trying to gain the confidence of the trucking industry and the public. Further complicating the situation is the fact that priorities have been re-organized, with post-9/11 security initiatives taking center stage. In short, it won't be an easy year for FMCSA.

Hours-of-service reforms heads the list of challenges facing the agency. DOT Secretary. Norman Mineta announced that the rulemaking package would be completed prior to Clapp's departure. Also on the table are TEA-21 reauthorization, cross-border carrier safety fitness assessment, driver training standards, and improvements to safety-data reporting. And let's not forget the agency's goal of reducing commercial vehicle related fatalities by 50% by 2010.

What qualities should we look for when choosing people to fill the job openings at FMCSA? I believe recent history offers many lessons.

Ousted Administrator George Reagle was berated by safety groups for being “too cozy” with the trucking industry. From my perspective, much of that criticism was undeserved. Reagle knew instinctively that dramatic improvements in truck safety would require public/private partnerships to design new training and oversight initiatives. I think this approach will be crucial in meeting the Slater “50 by 2010” crash reduction target.

Agency and industry insiders felt Cirillo took an excessively hard-line approach in the development and deployment of agency programs and field safety enforcement practices. Unfortunately, her approach dampened the enthusiasm of many talented staffers.

That said, Cirillo's steel-like beliefs will be essential in standing up to the looming industry battle over hours-of-service reform. Remember, our current rules have been in effect for over 60 years. Old habits and unwritten third-generation rules of the road will not die without a big fight. Such conviction and behind-the-woodshed mentality will also be necessary to hold states accountable for improving the quality and consistency of safety data.

As Clapp is concerned, critics say he never publicly demonstrated the level of stride, comfort and passion needed in such a high profile post. In this post-9/1l era, we've realized the importance of dogged compassion and comfort. These qualities can contribute to the confidence we have in public figures. Going forward, whoever is chosen to lead the FMCSA will have to demonstrate such confidence as he or she provides compelling testimony before Congress in seeking ample resources for safety programs.

Think about it. The traits mentioned above match the description of great truck safety professionals. I've been privileged to meet many during my encounters with our insured partners. Hopefully, our national truck safety agency will find such an individual who is willing to take on such an arduous task.

It's also important to look at these qualities in terms of your own fleet. Do your top safety officers demonstrate these traits? Are they viewed as leaders or followers? Do they have the dogged conviction necessary to fight for safety improvements and the resources needed to achieve them? If the answer is not “yes,” then I wouldn't be surprised your firm is that your firm is dealing with higher than desired crash rates or unacceptably high driver turnover.

Whether we're talking about a federal trucking agency or an individual fleet, putting the right person in charge is the first step in achieving the kind of safety record we can all be proud of.

Jim York is the manager of Zurich North America's Risk Engineering Team, based in Schaumburg, IL.