If Anne Ferro had the power to do just one thing to increase the safety of the trucking industry it would be to improve drivers’ working conditions and compensation. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) chief also said that carriers who feel unduly burdened by the agency’s July 1, 2013, changes to the hours-of-service (HOS) regulations are free to petition the agency for changes.

Fleet Owner Contributing Editor Avery Vise spoke with Ferro May 14 in FMCSA’s Washington, D.C., offices for about 25 minutes on several other major issues, including the Compliance Safety Accountability (CSA) program, the agency’s Safety Measurement System (SMS), DataQs, and the upcoming study of split rest in sleeper berths and the large drop in inspections stemming from traffic enforcement.

What follows is Ferro’s verbatim responses to questions on these topics, along with notes in several instances to put her comments into context.

FO: We continue to hear that there remains some important negative effects from last year’s HOS rule changes in the area of productivity and scheduling. Are you hearing the same, and if so, are there any plans to do anything about it?

Ferro: So it’s mixed. You are absolutely right. Our regulatory evaluation and documents reflected a primary impact on about 15% of the trucking population, and that was primarily over-the-road, irregular route, long-haul. That is what most of that calculation of a $500 million impact is based on.

It appears that even those who commented on the rule did not foresee the impact that some of them are feeling now with regard to a schedule that is more scheduled service, even within a 500-mile radius.

I have spoken with a lot of companies that have seemed to have made the adjustment. They have worked with their customers, adjusted their rates – some have gone through several rate adjustments – changed driver schedules and enabled a transition under the new rule to continue to meet their customers’ demands, do well, be competitive, [and] be safe. There are also those that have not been able to do that. Whether that’s a matter of contracts, customer demand, where their terminals are located, I can’t say. You know better than I how much it differs depending on the type of service they are providing.

So we are hearing now from those who have not been able to make the adjustment. Again, it appears that many have, and I have spoken with many who have; their interest is more in electronic logs than in HOS. There are avenues by which companies and trade associations can exercise their right to be heard. It can be a petition, exemption request, a pilot study request. We haven’t seen any of that outside the exemption requests outside the 30-minute break that are under consideration. 

FO:  Speaking of pilot studies, is there any update on plans to conduct a pilot study of on flexible use of sleeper berths?

Ferro: I am the one who requested that folks consider that. That goes back about a year and a half when we were close to finishing the split-sleep research that concluded that that split sleep is better recovery than daytime rest, which really speaks to the nighttime driver. With the advent of electronic logs and pending mandate on those, it makes a great deal of sense that we look at the impact of split sleep or the opportunity of split sleep in ensuring that the driver gets proper rest, stays within the HOS time limits and still can adjust to the flexibility some drivers say they would really like to see again.

So that pilot study…we are close to awarding a contract to a research outfit. Our research team has had conversations with each of the key groups. ATA [the American Trucking Associations] has submitted a proposal; there are a lot of good recommendations and scenarios in there. There’s the small trucking association and then OOIDA [the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association].

Once the contract is awarded we’ll sit down with all the groups together and lay out what the next steps look to us and kind of build it out. Because it needs to be a robust study to really get what we all want to see out of it, which is a true analysis of whether a split-sleep structure can be incorporated into the hours that drivers operate and still balance that with the oversight that the public expects to have to ensure that they are not going beyond their hours limits.

FO:  Given the plan for a study on split rest are you likely, then, not to accept any requests for exemptions such as the one recently submitted by McKee Foods Transportation.

Ferro: No, why wouldn’t we give serious consideration to McKee and incorporate them into the pilot study?

FO:  The biggest issue that won’t go away is the CSA program. You have gotten quite a bit of feedback on CSA directly from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) and the DOT Office of Inspector General (IG) and indirectly from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) and others…

Ferro: …and our own advisory committee

FO: …and your own advisory committee. Where do you go from here?

Ferro: We go along the path we’re on, and that path started with the advent of CSA as the method of improving the platform under which FMCSA identifies the highest-risk carriers and initiates enforcement review and potentially action on high-risk carriers. It’s a path that continues based on the commitment we have to continuous improvement, improvement over SafeStat and a foundation on which we can better measure high risk.

The other components of CSA, which in large part came about through public input in developing the program, are this key component of accountability and the use of transparency in the data to allow everybody to use the adage “what gets measured gets done” to their advantage both for carriers to improve and for external parties – whether it’s a passenger on a bus, a customer for a household goods mover or a shipper or a competitor of a carrier – to all see what’s going on.

Back to your question…we continue to improve based on both the input we received when we started developing CSA and the input we have received since putting it out there. That will continue. Most recently we, as you know, most recently put up a preview of how we were considering modifying how the data is displayed on an individual carrier’s [SMS] sheets as well as the overall system.

We got a lot of good comments back on that, and during that same period we received the GAO analysis and the IG analysis, and the [Motor Carrier Safety Advisory Committee] recommendations and the NTSB critique. And so we incorporate all of that to the extent it allows us to sharpen our focus on the carriers that need our attention and present the information in a fair and balanced way. We will continue to move that process forward.

FO:  What is the next step? Will we have another iteration of SMS before a rulemaking? Or is the next step a safety fitness determination rulemaking?

Ferro: Both. The next thing will be wrap-up of the proposed display changes along with implementation of the modifications to adjudicated citations. Those will be a part of the SMS modifications that will happen over the next four months. It will be preceded by a Federal Register notice so that everybody knows what we are going to do next. And we have been very clear about that. We have notified people in the past. We have asked for comments. We have briefed different groups about the adjudicated citation piece.  Then on a separate track, this fall we will be rolling out the proposal on the safety fitness determination rule.

[NOTE: FMCSA continues to push back the target date for publishing the proposed carrier safety fitness determination rule. The latest monthly report on rulemaking plans shows Dec. 17, 2014, as the anticipated date. The April report projected Sept. 16. The rule is already six years behind the original schedule.]

FO: Speaking of the adjudicated citation, which is directly related to DataQs, you are continually hammered by almost everybody in trucking about the DataQs process because you have left it to the states. Is there any thought of having that become a federally managed process where there is a federal review of those determinations?

Ferro: We have received lots of comments and input on going to the next level – whatever that construct might be; I’m not sure what it will be. But we are absolutely giving that serious consideration. How do you build in an appeal process? It’s absolutely fair to say that we are looking very carefully at what’s feasible, what’s affordable, what’s fair.

FO: Back to the public display issue. The SMS data is complex, and the GAO has pointed to concerns over the data quality. You are not giving any guidance to shippers or motorcoach passengers as to how they are supposed to use this data; you are just putting it out there. Is this really reasonable and fair to carriers?

Ferro: What’s reasonable is the public’s expectation of transparency. What reasonable is the president’s commitment to open government. And what’s reasonable is the knowledge that people use lots of information to make lots of decisions for lots of different activities – whether it’s a home loan, a car purchase or school choice.

The data in SMS – we absolutely have an obligation to be sure it’s presented clearly, it’s presented fairly and it’s identified for what it is to minimize the use of it for something it is not, which is a rating. It is not a rating; it is performance data that says this is how this company is complying with the national safety standards that come with operating a truck or a bus. And when it gets on our alert page, this is what is going on behind it when we start to worry.

We are in a hybrid position right now having the safety rating tied to an onsite compliance review and basically providing a snapshot of what that carrier’s safety and compliance picture looks like and performance data that looks more like your monthly financials to say what’s trending which way. So it’s very important for folks to use the mix of data to make the decisions they are going to make.

That being said, we are all eager to move on and get the safety fitness determination rule done so that we can move beyond this hybrid period and add more clarity. We are already in a clearer space back when it was just SafeStat, but we have to continue to improve upon it and take that pretty urgent next step.

FO: On a separate but related issue: Traffic enforcement inspections have dropped sharply in recent years. Your own studies show that TE [traffic enforcement] inspections are more valuable than routine weigh station inspections, and the CSA Unsafe Driving BASIC is populated entirely by data from TE inspections. So is this something you plan to do something about?

Ferro: It is something we are absolutely doing something about. The data drop itself almost took place prior to CSA, so the population of Unsafe Driving [BASIC] data when you think that it is being drawn from about 3.5 million roadside inspections and enforcement actions has been fairly constant in terms of the richness of that data.

[NOTE: The 3.5 million roadside inspections Ferro is referring to includes all inspections, not just those resulting from traffic enforcement. Most of those inspections provide data for other CSA BASICs but not the Unsafe Driving BASIC, which comes from TE inspections alone. TE inspections fell 39.1% from fiscal 2010 through fiscal 2013 to 388,110 and 48.7% from fiscal 2008 through fiscal 2013.]

The recognition that it’s all about the driver underscores the importance to us of traffic enforcement, and it underscores why we have spent several years reaching out to the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) to leverage the strengths of almost 800,000 officers to do traffic stops. Don’t worry about being a truck expert. Focus on whether that driver’s actions were unsafe lane change, speeding, tailgating – something that presents a risk to other drivers around them. So that work is well underway. IACP has been a strong partner. They are absolutely on board.

We also have been working closely with the Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance (CVSA) and our state partners directly to identify what we can help them with to ensure they are reporting traffic enforcement work. The reality is today that the CSA database doesn’t link in to a state’s conviction database. Should it in the long run? How could it in the long run? What are some of the longer-term improvements we could make?

In the meantime, it’s ensuring that that enforcement work is underway and ensuring that we are working closely with our partners to identify ways they can report that work to us.

FO: Truck crashes have continued to rise over the past few years.

Ferro: They have risen 18% since 2009.

FO: What is needed to move the needle on that to reduce accidents?

Ferro: It is a mix of strategies. It’s the use of performance metrics to be aware of your own company’s behavior and work. SMS is getting us there. We have seen significant reductions in driver and vehicle violations over the four years that we have had SMS out there. The number of clean inspections continues to improve. That’s one metric. While nobody likes a report card unless they are getting a good one, and it has its detractors, it is progress in the right direction.

Electronic logging – achieving a level of uniformity in hours-of-service compliance – is a very important next step.

Tools for employers like the Pre-employment Screening Program (PSP) that has shown improved safety numbers by those carriers that have adopted it.

[NOTE: An October 2013 report prepared for FMCSA found that carriers using PSP, which the agency launched in May 2010, reduced their crash and driver out-of-service (OOS) rates over the general carrier population. The gap in safety performance varied by fleet size, but overall the reduction was 8% in crash rates and 17.2% in driver OOS rates.]

The drug and alcohol clearinghouse, which provides another tool like PSP.

There’s no silver bullet. There’s absolutely a mix of strategies. It’s clear to me that many companies are ahead of the game and are demonstrating investments in safety technologies, investments in safety practices, investments in their drivers that are changing the performance results for those companies for the better.

Thank goodness for those leaders who continue to press forward and, I hope, shame the ones that keep hanging back and doing things the old way: Having severe driver shortages and a hard time recruiting and retaining and showing it in their crash or violation numbers.

The federal government working with our state partners will continue to improve our focus on the companies that are having a hard time complying, a hard time being safe and either make it clear to them what they need to do to get better so that they can or get them out of the business if they can’t.

It’s an iterative process. It’s a many-piece process. But I think we’ve got the key strategies all coming together at the right time and reinforcing the companies that are already way ahead of us.

FO: One final question: Suppose you were, temporarily, the trucking “czar” and could take action in one area without having to answer to Congress or the courts or the Administrative Procedure Act. What one thing would you do to improve truck safety?

Ferro: Improve drivers' working conditions and compensation. Treat them as professionals every step of the way – from the time they get on the job to the time they are on the loading dock to the time they get their next dispatch to the time they get their next paycheck. Give them a reasonable work life, a reasonable work schedule and a reasonable pay for the very difficult job they do.