Despite progress, Congress is not happy with industry safety results

Shortly before adjourning for the year, Congress passed the Motor Carrier Safety Improvement Act of 1999, which serves notice to America's trucking community that Congress is not satisfied with the motor carrier efforts to improve highway safety.

This despite recent figures from the Dept. of Transportation that show the fatal crash rate involving heavy trucks was 2.33 per 100-million miles in 1998, the lowest rate ever recorded. That's an 8.3% drop from 1997, when the industry recorded 2.54 fatal crashes per 100-million miles. The achievement is more than double the decrease for all vehicles, which came in at 3.4%.

In addition, an analysis of fatal crashes involving trucks and passenger vehicles by the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute (UMTRI) shows that in a solid majority of cases (70%) the driver of the passenger vehicle alone is responsible. In contrast, truck drivers were solely responsible only 16% of the time; 10% of the time both were at fault.

In head-on collisions that occur in the truck's lane (at 23%, the most common type of car-truck accident), UMTRI found that the driver of the passenger vehicle is responsible 92.5% of the time. In intersection accidents where trucks hit passenger vehicles on the side, passenger vehicles were at fault 76% of the time; truck drivers, 13.5%; and both, 8.5%.

The UMTRI study defined trucks as any cargo-carrying vehicles with a weight rating over 10,000 lb.; passenger vehicles were defined as automobiles, utility vehicles, and light trucks.

But it's still not enough for the regulators. The law (HR 3419) creates a new Motor Carrier Safety Administration beginning operations this month.

The Act requires DOT to strengthen its enforcement actions by establishing rules to take "strong action" against motor carriers with repeat violations of the same acute or critical regulations. New enforcement actions are to include higher fines and out-of-service orders. These fines would be high enough so that carriers would not consider them a cost of doing business, and they would be designed to ensure prompt and sustained compliance with safety standards. Motor carriers that fail to pay these fines within 90 days would be shut down.

The new law would mandate follow-up visits and monitoring of fleets that had less than satisfactory ratings to ensure that safety improvements are sustained. The law also makes it easier for DOT to shut down fleet operations when a condition exists that the agency thinks may substantially increase the likelihood of serious injury or death.

One of the major focuses of the new law concerns commercial driver's licenses (CDLs). Additional disqualifying offenses have been put in place, along with stiffer penalties for drivers who violate CDL rules.

Under the new law, medical qualifications would become integral to CDLs, resulting in new administrative requirements for fleet operators to advise state motor vehicle agencies should changes occur in a driver's medical condition. This could also make it more difficult for fleets to release employees from driving if they develop disqualifying medical conditions.

Other features of the bill include:

* An advisory committee for commercial vehicle safety;

* A requirement that DOT improve accident data systems;

* Additional disqualifying offenses for CDL standards and tougher penalties for CDL violations;

* Safety audits for motor-carrier applicants seeking new operating authority; and

* Foreign carriers will be prevented from operating illegally in the U.S.