In response to a court decision invalidating its safety ratings, the federal government has proposed altering the way it measures the safety fitness of motor carriers.

The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) has been rating carriers on six factors: general safety, with greater weight given to issues such as drug and alcohol testing; driver qualification and activities; operations; vehicle safety; hazardous materials; and accidents.

But last March a federal court threw the ratings out based on a technicality -- that the government had failed to allow adequate public review and comment when the rating system was first established more than a decade ago. The current rulemaking (Federal Register, May 28) is an attempt to comply with that ruling by opening the existing rating criteria for public comment.

The only change is a new accident-mileage formula that is set at 1.6 accidents per million miles, regardless of fault. If a carrier had more accidents than that, it would be considered unsafe. Carriers in urban areas, however, would have a higher accident threshold of 2.1 accidents per million miles. That's more than twice the average rate for all carriers, according to the FHWA.

For hazardous-materials haulers and bus operations, the rules are effective immediately. All other carriers must wait for a final rulemaking, which is likely by the end of November. The deadline for the public comment period is July 28.

In a related development, barely two months after derailing the safety rating procedures, Truckers United For Safety is back in FHWA's face. This time it's challenging the position that fleets are liable for the activities of their drivers regardless of whether the company knew about their activities or was in a position to prevent them.

Safety in the works: Light exemption The federal government has finalized details of a revised pilot program to study whether interstate motor carriers that operate light- and medium-duty vehicles should be exempt from some of its safety regulations. One caveat is that the carriers must meet specific performance-related thresholds.

The action follows a pilot program proposed last August whose recordkeeping requirements were so stiff that no carriers participated.

As a result, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) has taken steps to reduce that burden. Specifically, the agency has eliminated the requirement that motor carriers maintain and submit vehicle maintenance records. In addition, motor carriers will be required to submit accident data only twice a year, rather than quarterly. The FHWA will also allow drivers who periodically operate vehicles weighing more than 26,000 lb. to be part of the program.

Participation in the program will be limited to those motor carriers that have "exemplary safety histories," says the agency. That means an accident rate equal to or better than that of the top 25% of all motor carriers or a maximum of 1.6 crashes per one-million vehicle miles, regardless of fault. Other requirements include submitting a plan to improve operating safety and agreeing to notify the government within 10 days of any accident involving project drivers. Carriers would also have to re-calculate their accident rate at that time.

The FHWA will monitor the safety performance of participating carriers through random checks of various state and federal databases.

Participating carriers will be exempt from federal regulations governing driver logs, driver qualification files, inspections, and accident information. However, the FHWA did not release carriers from responsibility for maintaining driver medical examination.

At the end of the three-year pilot program, the FHWA will decide whether to make it permanent.