As administrator of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA), Anne Ferro championed some controversial initiatives: Reforming driver pay; extending accountability for compliance beyond drivers and motor carriers; and establishing greater authority and flexibility in penalizing and shutting down carriers for violations, for example.

While Ferro’s efforts to improve driver compensation and working conditions – changes she believes would have the greatest impact on truck safety – might fade away after she departs the agency, FMCSA has through regulation and enforcement practices expanded its power to enforce policies.

Just this year, for example, FMCSA finalized a rule expanding its authority to shut down for-hire carriers showing a pattern of safety regulations and proposed a rule prohibiting carriers, shippers, receivers and brokers from coercing drivers to violate certain regulations. The agency also reached agreement on sharing information with the Occupational Health and Safety Administration that likely will mean more enforcement actions by both FMCSA and OSHA.

The highway authorization law known as MAP-21 had – mostly at the agency’s request – expanded FMCSA’s authority to take action against carriers in various ways; it was MAP-21 that directed rulemakings on pattern of safety violations and coercion, for example. The law gave FMCSA authority to thwart “reincarnated carriers” – those that were affiliated with carriers or other entities that had been found unfit. MAP-21 also allowed FMCSA to revoke a carrier’s registration if the agency found it to be an imminent hazard to public safety and if its representative failed to respond to a subpoena.

In its proposal for the next highway bill, FMCSA asked Congress for a long list of new authorities that would give it leverage over carriers.

Actions versus results

FMCSA under Ferro has been aggressive in taking enforcement action against carriers and drivers – especially in the wake of high profile accidents and incidents. This policy has not been without controversy, however. For example, a Dept. of Transportation (DOT) judge overturned FMCSA’s action shutting down Illinois-based DND International – a decision that FMCSA is appealing.

But while DOT Administrative Law Judge Richard Goodwin took FMCSA to task for shutting down a carrier without justification, Ferro’s agency also has faced the opposite criticism that it has failed to act fast enough. Sen. Richard Durbin (D-IL) expressed both views in a matter of a few days, first praising FMCSA for responding quickly after a January crash involving DND International and then asking the DOT Office of Inspector General (OIG) for an investigation after learning that FMCSA had identified DND the summer before as needing an audit but that it had failed to conduct it until after the crash.

Citing a number of fatal truck crashes where the carrier involved had been shown to have had longstanding safety problems, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) in November called on DOT to audit FMCSA’s compliance review processes and the effectiveness of the agency’s focused compliance reviews. DOT

“While FMCSA deserves recognition for putting bad operators out of business, they need to crack down before crashes occur, not just after high-visibility events,” said Deborah Hersman, who was NTSB’s chairman in November. “Our investigators found, that in many cases, the poor performing company was on FMCSA’s radar for violations, but was allowed to continue operating and was not scrutinized closely until they had deadly crashes.”

DOT’s response to NTSB was to ask an independent review team (IRT) at the Federal Aviation Administration to conduct a peer review of FMCSA’s compliance review process, including CSA. That review is ongoing.

One of FMCSA’s oversight challenges lies in incomplete data. For example, the number of inspections stemming from traffic enforcement has dropped sharply in recent years as states apparently are opting not to conduct as many inspections after stopping drivers for speeding and other traffic violations.

Timing may play a role in Ferro’s legacy. Ferro might dispute FMCSA’s performance on oversight, but she has acknowledged that the number of large trucks involved in fatal crashes was up 18% between 2009 – the year she took office – and 2012. The increase is a bit deceiving, however, as 2009 represented a sharp drop in trucks involved in crashes due largely to the effects of the recession on freight and on highway mileage in general. The 2012 level remains below 2008 and far below earlier years when fewer truckers were on the road.

With the lag in releasing some highway data it might be another year or two before we know whether Ferro’s tough stance on enforcement has translated into improvements in truck safety.