FMCSA Receives Failing Grades in Regulating Trucking Industry and Protecting U.S.Highways and Drivers

March 12, 2007  

FMCSA Receives Failing Grades in Regulating Trucking Industry and Protecting U.S.Highways and Drivers

Statement of Joan Claybrook, President of Public Citizen*

In 1999, Congress created a new agency and gave it the crucial mission of reducing needless truck and bus deaths and injuries nationwide. Seven years after it opened its doors, however, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) is still not ready for prime time. In fact, it is a resounding failure. We are here today to present our report card grading the agency’s dismal performance. It shows that the agency is incompetent in implementing the policies necessary to prevent the kinds of horrific truck crashes that occur all too often on America’s highways and that we are hearing about today.

FMCSA’s record is embarrassing. It has never met any of its safety goals, even after cutting them back repeatedly. Nearly every one of its recent important safety regulations has been unanimously overturned by the courts. The agency has ignored numerous, specific congressional directions to advance and improve safety. It completely ignores its statutory mandate to make safety its highest priority, instead putting trucking interests first and the welfare of the American public last. 

In terms of its overall mission, FMCSA, which is highly politicized, shortchanges safety for the productivity and economic health of the trucking industry. The agency has consistently failed to meet congressional deadlines and mandates to issue health and safety rules, in some cases by more than a decade. When the agency has acted, it has been only in response to lawsuits that forced it to comply with statutory requirements.

Its ineffectual oversight and enforcement policies have not made a dent in truck and bus deaths and injuries. The agency’s original goal was to reduce fatalities by 50 percent by the close of 2008, but it has abandoned that for a far lower goal. There were 5,380 large truck-related fatalities in the United States when FMCSA was created in 1999. That rate has barely budged, standing at 5,212 deaths in 2005 – the most updated numbers available.

FMCSA does not conduct enough safety compliance reviews of truck and bus companies. It performs inspections on just 1.5 percent of all carriers each year. Those that fail the agency’s weak requirements are given a warning but not stopped from operating, thereby exposing other highway users to harm. The low number of safety reviews means that FMCSA fails to detect the most dangerous carriers and has little deterrent effect.

The agency also uses a severely flawed system of scoring motor carrier safety, called SafeStat, that has been harshly criticized in several oversight reports issued by the DOT’s Inspector General, the Government Accountability Office and the Oakridge National Laboratory.

FMCSA fails miserably in its core job of issuing rules that improve truck driver health and safety. Despite a lawsuit compelling it to provide sound training for entry-level commercial drivers as directed by Congress, FMCSA issued a regulation that didn’t require basic knowledge and skills training. The rule was overturned in federal court, but FMCSA has not complied with the court’s decision for more than a year. 

Also negatively impacting the health of truck drivers and the safety of U.S.highways, FMCSA has dramatically increased commercial driver hours-of-service. In 2003, it issued a regulation raising the number of hours a driver can work over an eight-day tour of duty by about 40 percent and the number of hours a driver can operate a truck by about 28 percent, a move that was overruled by a federal appellate court the next year. The agency implausibly claimed that this dramatic increase would not increase driver fatigue, boost the risk of crashes or harm driver health. The agency has also excluded from its rule a requirement for a monitoring system to assure compliance with hours-of-service rules. After years of procrastination, it has finally issued proposed regulations for the mandatory use of electronic on-board recorders, but its current proposal would require them only in under one percent of registered motor carriers.

In addition to failing to perform compliance reviews on U.S. trucks, FMCSA for several years has performed almost no compliance reviews of the tens of thousands of Mexico-domiciled motor carriers that make millions of crossings into the United States border zone each year. The agency has failed to monitor these trucks and correct violations of hours-of-service rules by Mexico-domiciled truck drivers. Despite these failings, the DOT just announced that is initiating a pilot program with 100 hand-picked, long-haul Mexico-domiciled trucking companies to allow them to roam nationwide, a ploy to force open the border to unrestricted commercial traffic from Mexico before the end of 2008. In February, National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) member Debbie Hersman questioned how the DOT could spare sending inspectors to Mexico when only a tiny percentage of the hundreds of thousands of U.S. truck companies are inspected every year. FMCSA simply is not ready or capable to provide the safety data, oversight or enforcement necessary to allow long-haul trucks from Mexico into the country.

In only one category on this report card does FMCSA pass muster, and indeed exceed expectations. It receives an “A” in squandering public resources to fund faulty research advancing the trucking industry’s economic priorities rather than public safety. One such study on the cause of large truck crashes cost U.S. taxpayers more than $20 million and was severely criticized by the National Academy of Sciences, the Centers for Disease Control and the National Institutes of Health, among others. The agency is infamous for using poorly supported research papers to blame the drivers of passenger vehicles for crashes. Although big trucks represent only three to four percent of registered vehicles, they are involved in 12 to 13 percent of all traffic fatalities each year.

Real blame should be placed on FMCSA for shirking its responsibilities and failing the American public. The agency needs a house-cleaning and leaders who are determined to put the safety of our highways and drivers first.

* Joan Claybrook was administrator of NHTSA from 1977-1981.

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