SMITH BRAIN TRUST — Crashes of large trucks are on the rise in the United States. From 2009 to 2015, deaths resulting from collisions involving trucks weighting more than 10,000 pounds rose from 3,380 to 3,903, an increase of 15 percent. Granted, one reason for the increase is that 2009 was a recession year, so there were simply fewer trucks on the roads. Also to be fair, when examined over a period of a decade or more, the trend in truck safety remains strongly positive.
Nonetheless, some highway-safety activists have raised alarms about the uptick, and they have a point, says Thomas M. Corsi, the Michelle E. Smith Professor of Logistics at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business. "There remain significant opportunities to further reduce fatal truck crashes," Corsi says.
In a recent piece, The Huffington Post tracked the ongoing struggle between the truck industry, its congressional allies, and the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, which regulates trucking, and its allies.
The congressional action that Corsi thinks was especially counterproductive involved lawmakers stepping in to prevent the truck-safety agency from publicizing on its website when truck carriers had passed thresholds indicating increased crash risk, according to its Safety Measurement System. The FMSCA had been noting — with a yellow warning triangle — when lines had been crossed in one of five areas known as the Basic Analysis and Safety Improvement Categories (BASIC): unsafe driving, including speeding; operation of vehicles by drivers who are fatigued or in non-compliance with hours limits; failure to properly maintain a vehicle; use of intoxicants, and overall driver fitness. That rating system had been in place since 2010, after a lengthy trial period.
Those safety alerts triggered various safety interventions, including additional compliance reviews and roadside inspections. But anyone visiting the FMCSA website, notably people hiring trucking firms, could act on the alerts or on the data underpinning them. Congress, however, ordered that the safety alerts be removed from the public website. (Lawmakers ultimately backed down on a proposal, sought by some, to explicitly forbid the use of the BASIC data in lawsuits.)
Some critics, including the Government Accountability Office, have suggested that the FMCSA's rating system discriminated against small trucking firms, because a handful of violations can trigger sanctions. Corsi, however, says that the data show that the rating system works effectively. The GAO report was "a flawed study," he says, and cut against the grain of scholarly consensus. The data show "that small carriers identified as having above threshold BASIC scores — in unsafe driving, hours of service and vehicle maintenance — have crash rates that are quite comparable to the crash rates of larger carriers," Corsi says.
Some 200,000 carriers, out of a total of roughly 500,000 in the United States, had enough data to bet BASIC ratings. Of those, Corsi notes, 50,000 scored above the intervention threshold in at least one category. Those 50,000 carriers accounted for 45 percent of all crashes.
Put another way, their crash rates were 50 percent higher than the crash rates of carriers that did not meet the intervention threshold. Ironically, Corsi says, FMCSA's approach was the opposite of the more direct government regulation that the truck industry typically objects to. It relied less on federal inspectors ordering truckers off the road than on making violations transparent. "We talk a lot about how our economic system ought to be one in which people make informed decisions, in a free market, based on information," he says. "When this information was available it was used effectively by brokers and by insurance companies."
"The vast majority of carriers operate safely, and follow the rules," Corsi says. "You would think they would welcome people looking up their records and seeing that they are safe carriers. But the squeaky wheels — the worst performers — have been dominant in the discussion."
The information is not entirely unavailable: The FMCSA website no longer reveals which companies are in violation of BASIC standards or highlights where they fall relative to their peers. But in some areas it still includes the raw information on which such judgments used to be made — a move Congress and trucking lobbyists may not have anticipated.
On another front, Corsi supports the FMCSA's efforts to raise the minimum amount of insurance that truckers carry, from $750,000. That figure has not changed since the 1980s, and it bears little connection to the damage that an 80,000-pound rig can cause.
The Huffington Post identified other areas of tension between regulators and trucking lobbyists. One had to do with a proposed requirement that overweight truckers to be tested for sleep apnea, a condition that leads to drowsiness on the road. But those tests can be expensive, and Congress has ordered more studies to be conducted before action is taken. In 2014, Congress also suspended a rule requiring, after truckers hit a certain number of hours of work, that they take a 33-hour break that includes two night-time sleep periods — 1 a.m. to 5 a.m. Such a rule was in effect from 2013 to 2014, but Congress ended enforcement and demanded further study of the issue Some research suggest that nighttime sleep is more restorative than day naps.
Medical issues like the optimal time for sleep lie outside Corsi's area of expertise, although the the sleep-apnea test seems reasonable on its face, he suggests. In general, Corsi says he objects to Congress acting to reverse informed policy decisions in the area of driver hours-of-service that have been developed after years of study by the FMCSA. Further reductions in crashes will "require continued implementation of a range of new safety technologies accompanied by government policies to monitor and regulate the activities of the trucking industry," he says.
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