Annette M. Sandberg is no stranger to safety and security issues as they relate to the trucking industry, as she spent 17 years in a variety of law enforcement, supervisor and administrative posts with the Washington State Patrol – the last six of them as chief of the $321-million agency. After becoming the second chief administrator of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) on August 1, 2003, following her confirmation by the U.S. Senate, Sandberg has focused on increasing the attention paid to trucking safety and security, and believes they will be major issues for some time to come. She recently spoke with FleetOwner by phone to outline FMCSA’s position in those two areas for today as well as tomorrow.

FO: From your perspective, has trucking safety improved over the last several years? Where does the focus on safety need to go in the future?

Sandberg: We’ve seen a significant improvement in trucking safety over the last five to six years, especially in terms of the accident fatality rate per miles driven. Trucks have a much greater exposure to accidents than cars simply because they are on the road much more often – and on top of that there’s been a fairly significant increase in the number of new truck registrations in the last few years. So even though the number of fatalities went up slightly last year [Fatalities in large truck crashes increased from 4,939 in 2002 to 4,986 in 2003, according to DOT data] the fatality rate went down because vehicle miles driven by large trucks were significantly higher.

Still, we need to do a lot of things. We need to get truck drivers to buckle up – they have the lowest rate of seat belt use among all drivers and that has to change. We have to continue to pursue technologies that can improve truck safety, such as lane monitoring and blind spot camera systems – devices we are testing as we speak. Maintaining a safe following distance between the truck and other vehicles is critical to highway safety, so we have to work on ways to get that.

Finally, there’s the driver – they are perhaps the key component in the overall vehicle in terms of highway safety. We have to look at driver behavior and health issues – are our medical qualifications rigorous enough? Are new drivers getting the proper training they need? We need to look at all of those areas and how they impact the abilities of the driver behind the wheel.

FO: Do you think truck driver training needs to change to improve highway safety? Do we need to move to a national CDL license and national training standards to improve safety?

Sandberg: At this point, we don’t have enough data to single out ‘driver training’ as a major highway safety factor. Right now, we are examining results from our ongoing truck-crash causation study, and what we are seeing so far tells us that the driver is a piece of the safety puzzle we need to look at. You have to remember that our rulemaking is driven by data, so whatever our data show us in terms of what we need to do in terms of driver-related issues, that’s what we’ll focus on.

FO: How important do you think the health and wellness of the truck driver population is in relation to job performance, highway safety, and their work career? Is ‘health and wellness’ an issue that the industry needs to address more?

Sandberg: clearly, driver health is a focus for us. We’ve changed the blood pressure standard for truck drivers, for example, and we are looking at more ways to translate medical data were getting into good standards. We’re still not sure how our efforts will pan out – how basic health impacts fatigue, for example, or the ability to operate a large truck. But clearly, it’s going to be an important issue moving forward.

FO: Do you think efforts are needed to improve how automobile drivers operate their equipment around trucks in order to improve highway safety?

Sandberg: Most people don’t understand the difference between vehicle dynamics – that motorcycles and cars in comparison have very different operating characteristics, just as cars and heavy trucks have major differences. We need a more aggressive campaign to educate the public about the dynamics of large trucks so they behave appropriately around them. We’ve had a fairly aggressive outreach effort in terms of discussing the ‘No Zone’ around large trucks but we have to do more. The enforcement component is critical to this – if you ticket an inappropriate behavior, people get the message. That’s how you get them to fully understand the differences between the vehicles.

FO: Hours-of-service reform, an effort FMCSA labored over for years, took a huge blow this year in federal court – from your perspective, why do you think HOS reform is being contested so bitterly?

Sandberg: Clearly, there’s a misunderstanding out there in the public and among a variety of interest groups about trucking. First of all, trucking is not one single industry – it is many different industries that are only similar in that they use a truck as a tool to conduct their business. The dilemma we face is that every segment of trucking uses that tool in a significantly different way – that’s what the real issue is. People don’t understand that one size doesn’t fit all.

In terms of public perception of the industry, people only care that when they walk into a store, what they want to buy is there on the shelf – they don’t think of how it got there at all. They don’t realize that it got there by a truck at some point in the distribution process. Clearly, trucking plays a very important role in the economy – but the problem is it’s a relatively unseen one in the public eye.

FO: Security is still a major watchword in the industry, but there seems to be a lack of agreement among trucking companies as to what poses the greatest threat: terrorism or cargo theft. What do you think is the greatest threat facing the industry?

Sandberg: “Security” has become a general catchall word that encompasses a lot of issues, from terrorism to theft. But theft and terrorism are closely related, because if someone can easily steal a truck for the goods inside, a terrorist can do the same thing for other more deadly purposes – because it is far easier to steal a truck and trailer sitting in a dimly lit parking lot somewhere than to hijack it in transit.

The way we at FMCSA look at it is that carriers need good safety and security plans that take a ‘holistic’ approach – they have to address both terrorism and thievery. Because the more incidents of theft a carrier suffers, the more risk it adds to their operations across the board security-wise. The biggest thing carriers need to be aware of is that terrorism or theft can happen to anybody, just like highway accidents can happen to even the best drivers. So you need to “drive defensively” when it comes to security – are you aware of all the security risks facing your company? Are you hiring good drivers and employees? Good procedures will help any business – not just trucking – be more secure.