After a number of studies, tons of data collection, and scores of public hearings, truck-safety advocates are finding that the most important factor in highway safety is the driver.

This belief was expressed again and again by panelists at the National Transportation Safety Board's (NTSB) three-day truck and bus safety hearing last month. Asked to give their thoughts on what works best to keep our highways safer, almost all of the speakers put the driver first and foremost, even those pressing for technological and regulatory solutions.

Some suggested more rigorous training. "Make the CDL test longer and more difficult," said W.L. Chambers, driver and owner-operator. Several other drivers recommended that states and federal agencies should work more closely to prevent CDL fraud and state license shopping by unfit drivers.

Education should not stop at the driver, either, others said. Fred St. Cyr, a driver for Concord Coach Lines, told a story about a driver who couldn't produce a logbook for a police officer because it was kept electronically. Not only was the driver given a citation, but he also had to spend time in court explaining that electronic logbooks meet legal requirements.

The driving public needs education about big trucks as well, said Mark Edwards, the AAA's managing director of traffic. According to a recent survey conducted by AAA, motorists are frightened of driving near big trucks because they don't understand their characteristics.

Edwards suggested that the trucking industry might want to follow in the footsteps of the motorcycle safety foundation, which supplied information about sharing the road with motorcycles to state DMVs for inclusion in driver manuals.

Although those representing the equipment side of the industry advocated more safety devices being built into trucks, they also came to the conclusion that it all rests in the hands of the driver.

Jim Hebe, president and CEO of Freightliner Corp., said that while electronically controlled braking systems, quieter, less vibrating cabs, and lane-focusing devices help contribute to safety, the driver is still the most important factor.

Max Fuller, co-chairman of U.S. Xpress Enterprises, said that not only is it difficult to find skilled drivers, but those who don't meet his company's standards may be hired elsewhere or decide to drive for what he later described as "wildcatters." He noted that when his company hires, it would like to have a driver's complete profile - not just a 'satisfactory' recommendation from the previous employer.

The best predictor of who will have crashes? According to Jim York, director of safety for the National Private Truck Council, it's those with histories of prior crashes. Second is driver behavior, and third is vehicle condition. The emphasis on safety should be on driver performance reporting, he added. York also voiced his concern over programs that mask driver violations, such as when citations are wiped off records after drivers attend safety classes.

Speaking from the government's perspective, Julie Cirillo, the new program manager for Motor Carrier and Highway Safety, said that government programs need improvement. "We have reached a plateau in fatality rates. We need to do a better job with enforcement."

Cirillo and other government speakers expressed their concerns over the inadequacy of current hours-of-service rules, lack of truck rest areas, and other fatigue-related issues that reach to the quick of driver performance.

NTSB chairman Jim Hall added that if truck rest areas were named after legislators, there would be no shortage of such areas. While the audience and officials laughed, it was clear to most that the best ways to prevent truck crashes may end up being the simplest.

Based on what it learns from this and other hearings, NTSB expects to offer its highway safety recommendations this summer.

Internal Revenue Service (IRS) Commissioner Charles Rossotti and National Taxpayer Advocate Val Oveson have vowed to make the IRS more responsive to small businesses. On April 15 Rossotti unveiled details of an IRS makeover that includes a small business operating division whose management "basically lives, dies, and breathes small business." Meanwhile, Oveson is recruiting a senior-level official to deal exclusively with tax problems faced by small businesses and the self-employed.

In addition, the IRS has teamed with the Small Business Administration to produce a free CD-ROM to help businesses get familiar with filing and recordkeeping requirements. The agency also has revised some of its forms to make them easier to fill out and has raised the threshold for mandatory use of electronic tax payments from $50,000 per year to $200,000 in employer's taxes.

The Natural Gas Vehicle Coalition (NGVC) has advised that in addition to regular 3-yr./36,000-mi. inspections, CNG containers should undergo a detailed visual examination for damage or deterioration after a motor vehicle accident.

Containers should not be removed from the vehicle unless damage or deterioration is seen on the exposed container surface. A comprehensive list of resources and training materials covering inspection and maintenance of CNG vehicle fuel containers is available from the Natural Gas Vehicle Coalition. For more information, contact the NGVC at 703-527-3022 or fax them at 703-527-3025.

The U.S. Court of Appeals has ruled that the OSHA Cooperative Compliance Program is unlawful since it requires more than mere adherence to current regulations, yet was never submitted for public comment.

Initiated in 1997, the program targeted companies with higher than average work-related injuries and illnesses, encouraging them to comply with a number of safety measures and report annually to OSHA. In return, they were to face a reduced risk of an OSHA inspection.

The appeals court agreed with business groups that felt the program was coercive and amounted to a new regulation.