Whether it's the creation of a separate motor carrier administration or stiffer enforcement and increased fines, everybody in Washington seems to have a plan to improve motor carrier safety. So prevalent are the discussions, in fact, that a motor carrier safety bill in one form or another is increasingly likely.

Ironically, the safety push comes as the Dept. of Transportation reported the number of people killed in accidents involving heavy trucks dropped for the first time in three years. In 1998, 5,302 people lost their lives in these accidents, down from 5,398 killed in 1997. In addition, the fatality rate (fatalities per million miles of travel) has been cut in half over the past 20 years.

Transportation Sec. Rodney Slater has promised to halve the number of motor carrier-related deaths through a bold series of initiatives. For starters, he calls for doubling the number of inspections conducted by individual safety officials from 24 to 48 a year. That will bring the general total up to 20,700 inspections next year. And in addition to the increased frequency, Slater wants to make inspections tougher.

Plus, he's calling for far stiffer penalties, including the ability to shut down unfit carriers and refusal to negotiate lower fines. Under Slater's plan, fines for safety violations will increase to $10,000 each, and recordkeeping violations to $5,000.

"This should persuade irresponsible carriers - those with a history of repeat violations - that small fines are not just a cost of doing business," DOT said. In fact, the first major fines were assessed just last month. (See related news story.)

In addition, DOT has adopted the clarion call to lean on technology to help improve highway safety. Specifically, the agency mentioned engine-speed governors to enforce speed limits and so-called black boxes in every tractor to collect key operating data electronically.

Slater would also like to see higher shipping rates and fewer hours on the road for drivers. He has advocated a new safety awareness campaign, "Safety is Good Business."

Just hours after Slater unveiled his program, former congressman Norman Mineta, who was asked earlier this year by Slater to identify strategies to reduce motor carrier-related fatalities and injuries, was up on Capitol Hill brandishing his report. Mineta opposed the creation of a separate modal administration as too costly and ineffective.

Instead of creating a new agency, Mineta suggested refocusing FHWA into a more cost-effective double-barreled bureau focusing on highway engineering and motor carrier safety.

Mineta also suggested: *Increased surveillance, compliance, and enforcement activities, including more inspections.

*More inspections at the Mexican border.

*New motor carrier regulations.

*Improved safety data and information systems.

*New motor carrier safety entry requirements. (Studies show that carriers with less than three years' experience have higher crash rates and lower safety-compliance rates.)

*New license training and testing programs, including a commercial learner's permit and apprentice driving program.

*Increased truck and bus crash-avoidance initiatives, including use of devices that will help avoid collisions with passenger vehicles.

Not to be outdone, Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) chairman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation, who many believe was responsible for this latest round of truck safety measures, continues his push to shift motor carrier safety issues from FHWA to NHTSA.

Wolf has inserted language that would eliminate all funding for truck safety projects unless DOT shifts them out of FHWA. The move takes place on October 1 of this year. However, he said he was open to an alternative plan to create a new motor carrier administration within the department.

Wolf's language is not included in the Senate version and it is unclear whether it would survive.

To help readers cope with the increased likelihood of safety regulations, we are refocusing this column to serve as a resource to improve the safety of fleet operations.

Not just a compliance primer, this column will provide ways to "raise the bar" to new levels of safety by examining the best practices throughout the industry.

If, in the meantime, you have any questions, please call me directly at 203-358-4103 or e-mail me at tom_moore@intertec.com.