Safety issues more than just statistics for trucking industry

Jonathan Grass

When truckers don’t live up to safety measures, everyone loses. Just ask Renata Smith. Her cousin’s family was in a car accident in Georgia late last year. An 18-wheeler was going too fast and trying to pass another vehicle when it hit the family’s car head-on. While her cousin made it to the hospital, her husband and two-year-old daughter were not so lucky.

Smith works as a planner for the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities. She describes her job working “toward trying to make the world safer dealing with commercial vehicles.”

While she started the job earlier in 2011, it took on a whole new meeting after the accident later that year.

“It made it real to me. You weren’t just dealing with number or statistics. That’s when it became real,” she said. “I started realizing you’re dealing with people’s lives.”

She said the connection made when working accidents such as the one her family experienced makes it a genuine issue to resolve. She said it’s not just the victims and families that are affected, but the drivers who must live with it the rest of their lives.

Smith told her tale to the Journal, but her first stop was to share it with Anne Ferro, administrator for the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Division.

Ferro was in Anchorage to give an update on her agency at the Alaska Trucking Association’s annual meeting.

The federal agency’s safety agenda nationwide is to raise the bar the industry safety, ensuring operators maintain high standards and removing unsafe drivers and companies from the roads.

Among her topics was the agency’s Compliance, Safety, Accountability program, or CSA. This initiative, implemented in 2010, is a nationwide system to improve safety and reduce accidents that involve trucks and buses. CSA data is company-specific, using inspections for around 525,000 companies engaged in interstate commerce.

Regular audits issue scores to companies and drivers within seven BASICs (Behavior Analysis and Safety Improvement Categories). These BASICs include measuring driver fitness, driver fatigue, unsafe driving, controlled substances and alcohol, vehicle maintenance, cash indicators and improper loading and cargo separately.

CSA is undergoing changes with updates planned after a preview period and public comments this year. Such changes includes updating the Safety Measurement System methodology to better identify carrier that are riskier or more safety sensitive while addressing industry biases.

There could also be changes to the safety fitness determination rule to be proposed next year. Among these changes would be applying CMS data to established thresholds to determine safety ratings, replacing on-site compliance reviews.

As for the crash BASIC information, data was broken out to help distinguish between crashes that had injuries from those that were fatal. The agency is currently analyzing crash indicators using this separation.

However, scores from the crash BASIC are not public information. Ferro said there has been some misinformation out there that this would change but the analysis must be completed first to ensure fairness within the program.

Ferro said trucking conditions here are different than many areas down south, which has to be taken into consideration. There were 5,700 roadside inspections here last year

Ferro said there has been a 90 percent drop in overall violations and 12 percent drop in driver violations from these inspections nationwide. She said Alaska has an outstanding safety record, with only 6 people killed and less than 50 injured in collisions involving trucks in 2010.

“Alaska is below the overall nationwide rate with regard to fatalities and injuries,” she said.

Ferro suspects this is due to the knowledge of Alaska’s high-risk conditions and the practices they build into their procedures due to that knowledge. She said there is also less interaction with cars and trucks than in other parts of the country.

Dan England, chair of the American Trucking Associations, agrees that accidents have gone down. He said the number of truck-related fatalities is down 27 percent since 2000, adding the number of injuries has dropped at about the same rate.

However, England said the regulatory issues concerning agencies like CSA can be challenging to the trucking industry, especially with over-reaching policies, which can be especially tricky with CSA since it’s a new and still-developing program.

“So we’re asking why do they want to change the rules when were doing so well,” he said.

England said having seven categories instead of a single overall audit means audits and scores on individual categories rather than everything, affecting efficiency.

He said CSA is a good system as long as the separate BASICs accurately reflect how drivers and companies are doing, but issues can arise about the methodology for coming up with these scores being accurate reflections.

He said ATA is working with FMCSA to develop the best ways to work it out problems with the system.

“This is a process that’s going to take us some time to make sure that these basics accurately measure us,” he said.

England said an industry concern is that over-regulation from the federal government can affect productivity and costs. Ferro agrees that the business side is important and FMCSA is there to help maintain success while imposing better driving, saying safety and profitability go hand-in-hand.

“Clearly for the trucking industry and the supply chain, it’s all about efficiency but over the years so many recognize safety must be built into that supply chain just as efficiency and sustainability,” she said.

She gave an example of how a detained shipping dock operation could contribute to drivers hurrying, which could cause an accident like the one Smith’s cousin experienced.

“At DOT, safety is our highest priority and we certainly recognize the impact of our safety programs and requirements on the ability of companies to operate effective,” Ferro said.

Smith said she would like to see driver safety improve and even head for the ultimate goal of zero fatalities someday.

“While some people may say it’s unrealistic, you’ve just got to strive for that because no one wants to find out that they lost a loved one,” she said.

11/08/2016 - 11:09am