A detailed 47-page report issued by the Department of Transportation’s (DOT) National Freight Advisory Committee (NFAC) provides a total of 81 recommendations aimed at improving the U.S. freight transport system – with the top suggestions aimed at beefing up safety.

Ann Schneider, the committee’s chairman, and Mortimer Downey, III, its vice chairman, delivered the NFAC’s report to U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx back on June 12. The central theme of the group’s analysis is that while the U.S.  freight transportation system has been and continues to be cited as a top priority for the entire industry as well as DOT agencies, a wide gap yet remains between this priority and the reality of the yearly high average number of freight related fatalities and injuries.

“In 2011, there were approximately 5,000 fatalities and 100,000 injuries associated with freight movement with the majority associated with freight delivered on highways and roadways,” NFAC noted in its report. “Proven and verified technologies and practices to improve the safety of our freight system are available to reduce the adverse impact of freight movement on the American public and freight workers both now and as we prepare for the projected steep increase in freight demand.”

As a result, the committee’s top five recommendations are:

  • Encourage safety practices beyond minimum compliance.
  • Support analysis of and, where warranted from a safety standpoint considering cost, a more rapid adoption of safety technologies including those recommended by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB).
  • From an operational perspective, the DOT should strive to achieve safety and security regulations in such a way as to minimize, where possible, the impact on an efficient supply chain.
  • Safety, security and resiliency factors need to be considered and built into transportation infrastructure design and investment decisions.
  • Employ a greater degree of risk-based management in approach to security within the U.S. freight transportation systems’ operations.

NFAC also noted that there are several major “barriers” that need to be surmounted in order to fully improve freight transport safety and efficiency:

  • The lack of surface transportation legislation that is multimodal and fully addresses freight as well as passenger transport (i.e. MAP-21 remains highway and transit centric) and the lack of an explicit national freight policy or plan.
  • Different regulatory structures exist across modes with different regulatory authority exists across government entities. Also a lack of agreement regarding effectiveness of various regulations (e.g. hours of service) and a fragmented regulatory environment (e.g. truck size, truck emissions, heavy load permits, credentialing programs) add to the problem.
  • Changing or unclear regulations concerning air quality, water quality and traffic plus other regulatory barriers that may delay projects and increase costs or lead to productivity losses.
  • There is a lack of technological interoperability and standards across modes and diverse systems, with high implementation costs for system-wide technology changes.
  • On top of that there are limited technology development/demonstration programs for freight systems aggravated by a lack of workforce “technical capacity.”
  • The complexity of institutions, public and private participation in freight system help create a mismatch in the federal modal structure with intermodal nature of freight system.
  • Anticipated insolvency of the Highway Trust Fund and its impact on planning and investment decision-making translates into limited funding for freight specific projects that are multimodal and crosses jurisdictional boundaries.
  • Add to that the complexity and challenges of private-public partnerships as well as an aging and deteriorating infrastructure across all most modes (with only railroads the possible exception).
  • Finally, limited investment in medium and long-term freight transport research combined with legacy system problems (e.g. outdated and aging infrastructure) and a lack of data for monitoring and analyzing freight leads to restricted planning for future freight demand. Congestion and bottlenecks due to capacity and/or regulatory constraints add to those problems as well.

“Our nation’s economic competitiveness depends on a transportation network that can move freight safely and efficiently, especially as we are expected to move double the current amount by 2050,” noted DOT's Foxx in a statement.  “I appreciate the work of the advisory committee – their suggestions will help inform the Department’s work improving our country’s future freight system.”