With truck safety coming under the harsh glare of public scrutiny, it's probably time to peek behind the government's curtain to see how it actually measures safety - and what it's doing to improve it.

To understand the federal government's mind-set, we must go back 20 years to the Motor Carrier Act of 1980, which effectively deregulated the trucking industry. Prior to that, motor carrier entry had been governed by a carrier's ability to demonstrate, among other things, safety fitness. When entry standards were relaxed, it was easier for people to get into the trucking business. Many of these new carriers didn't know much about trucking or safety.

The result was a deterioration of highway safety, which Congress addressed in 1984 via the Motor Carrier Safety Act. This law established minimally acceptable safety standards. A compliance review process was set up so that the federal government could assess a carrier's ability to demonstrate compliance in the following areas:

*Accidents

*Driver regulations, including qualification, licensing, and drug and alcohol testing

*General factors, such as failing to maintain adequate insurance

*Operational factors, such as hours of service

*Vehicle factors covering inspection, repair, and maintenance

*Haz-mat transportation

Carriers are given a rating of satisfactory, conditional, or unsatisfactory for each area. Overall safety fitness ratings are based on performance in the six areas.

For example, if a carrier receives no more than two conditional ratings, it is eligible for an overall rating of "satisfactory."

A carrier with more than two conditional ratings, or one unsatisfactory rating and one or no conditional ratings, gets an overall rating of "conditional." This rating allows the carrier to continue operating while it tries to get its safety act together. In addition, a conditional rating all but guarantees another performance review.

An unsatisfactory rating - complete with the threat of fines and shutdown - is given for anything worse.

To help in the evaluation process, the government set up two levels of violations: acute and critical. Acute violations are infractions so severe that they demand immediate corrective action by the carrier, regardless of the fleet's overall safety picture. Examples of acute violations include operating a vehicle without minimum levels of insurance or permitting a driver to work while under the influence of alcohol.

Critical violations, considered less severe than acute violations, are designated when a pattern of infractions indicates a breakdown in a carrier's safety-management controls. Examples include scheduling a run that would require drivers to violate speed limits or failing to prepare periodic inspection reports.

In a case involving MST Transport two years ago, the DOT review found a pattern of noncompliance, including incomplete inspections, missing driver qualification files, hours-of-service violations, and drivers without alcohol and drug testing. The carrier was issued an unsatisfactory rating.

The carrier sued DOT and won, based on the fact that the agency had not established a process by which to determine a pattern of violations. As a result of that challenge, the government has since specified that if 10% of a fleet's records indicate noncompliance, that would constitute a critical violation. This 10% threshold is not 10% of all records, just 10% of the records DOT chooses to inspect.

In an evaluation of compliance reviews conducted over the last six years, the National Private Truck Council found that 32% of the carriers were not in compliance in operational areas; 38% missed the target on drivers; and 35% had compliance violations relating to the vehicle itself.

With the renewed focus on improving highway safety, DOT has already announced plans to tighten enforcement. The agency is doubling the number of compliance reviews (20,700 are anticipated in the year 2000) and making penalties stiffer.

In subsequent columns we will take a more detailed look at each of the six elements that comprise the safety fitness rating, as well as at programs that have been successful in helping fleets move beyond compliance and toward improving their overall safety performance.