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Public Roads - Jan/Feb 1999

Office of Motor Carriers and Highway Safety: Always 'Safety First'

On Sept. 17, 1998, George L. Reagle, the Federal Highway Administration's associate administrator for motor carriers and highway safety, was interviewed by David Smallen for Public Roads. At the time of this interview, Reagle led the Office of Motor Carriers, which became the Office of Motor Carriers and Highway Safety on Jan. 1, 1999, in the restructuring of the headquarters of the Federal Highway Administration.

Public Roads: Why do we need an Office of Motor Carriers?

George L. Reagle: That's a very good question. Because of the magnitude of the problem. When 5,000 people a year die in truck-related crashes and we have more than 450,000 separate companies operating large trucks on our nation's highways, we need an agency to focus on the details of the problem. This includes issues involving the drivers, vehicles, and the highway environment.

The trucking company population has grown from 280,000 when I started here in January 1994 to more than 450,000 now. That means the size of our umbrella has grown to cover the growing population. Because of deregulation, it's very easy to buy a truck and start a trucking company. The truck population has been growing, and it's still growing.

PR: What do you tell people when they say big trucks scare them?

GR: Many people do fear trucks. When you look at the data, we see that about 5,000 people die every year in crashes involving trucks. The fatality-rates chart shows there is a problem. When the public says there is a problem, we can't just walk away from it.

It's a matter of physics. When a large truck hits a smaller vehicle, the smaller vehicle gets most of the impact. The fact that there are 5,000 fatalities a year is not inconsequential. We have to deal with it aggressively.



To look at the good side, we have made significant progress. Over the last 10 years, the fatal crash rate involving large trucks decreased by 30 percent, even as vehicle miles traveled increased by 40 percent.

PR: Has the vision or philosophy of the Office of Motor Carriers changed in recent years?

GR: Definitely. When I got here in 1994, we were very good at writing regulations and seeking compliance with those regulations. I wanted us to continue these activities but also to change our approach to looking at what the data reveals and taking action based on it. By doing that, we could target our resources, which are limited, for the most serious problems.

Let me give you an example. We put up a map in the office with flags on it to determine the location of most truck-related fatalities. We saw which 10 states had the most truck-related fatalities, and we put additional resources into those states [California, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Michigan, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Texas]. That approach worked. Two years later, fatalities in seven of those states went down, two were even, and one went up.

We are focusing on getting solid, reliable data so we can make good decisions about the use of our resources. With our limited resources, we must be focused. We must focus on what makes a difference. This approach is now in the law in TEA-21 [the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century]. It has codified what we have tried to do for the past several years.

PR: What is your view of the trucking industry?

GR: There isn't one trucking industry. There are a number of very different trucking industries - and a number of associations representing the industry. Just as we try to communicate with safety, labor, and enforcement, we have tried to sit down and have an honest, constructive dialogue with all segments of the industry. We need to have the industry as our partner in improving safety, and I hope the industry would agree the dialogue has been valuable. We have been talking to them particularly about the driver fatigue/alertness problem and the use of technology.

We need to sit and hear each other's point of view. This type of dialogue increases our understanding immeasurably although there are times we may not agree.

PR: What do you mean?

GR: Lack of communication leads to a sort of paranoia. When that paranoia exists, you might make the wrong kinds of judgments, particularly on issues on which you don't agree. If you're not talking, you won't understand why things were done. Communication is very, very important.

PR: What is the single most important thing that needs to be done to improve motor carrier safety?

GR: There is no single thing - or silver bullet - that we can do that will make things better. But there's a whole host of things. There is the generic issue of technology. We are using technology wherever we can. All of us have been asked to do more with less and the only answer is technology. There is no silver bullet, but there are things we are doing:

  • We are making the MCSAP [Motor Carrier Safety Assistance Program] performance-based.
  • We are on the right road when we talk about strategic enforcement. Finding the problem carriers and getting them off the road is critical.
  • Public education and information are critical. Our "Awake at the Wheel", Red-Light-Running and Work-Zone Safety campaigns are good examples. And of course, we hope the four-year-old No-Zone campaign has already had an impact on public safety.

PR: What has been the impact of deregulation on motor carrier safety?

GR: In the past, for-hire companies had to meet many conditions before being authorized to operate. Congress then eliminated many of the controls for entry into the business. Now, once you buy a truck, you're virtually in business. This means the population has grown to the point where 80 percent of the companies under our umbrella have fewer than seven trucks. We are dealing with a lot of small companies.

PR: What does that large number of small companies mean for what you do?

GR: It means we have to really make sure we have good data on carriers, vehicles, drivers, and crashes and that we use the information strategically to go after the bad companies and get them off the road. It also means that we have to make an even greater effort in ensuring they are aware of our safety regulations and how to comply with them.

PR: What is your relationship with the states?

GR: The state motor carrier safety officials are represented by the Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance, the motor carrier equivalent of AASHTO [American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials]. Our relationship is good. My job is to push and tug the program in the right direction. We are pushing and tugging in the direction of a performance-based program. Some in the states agree with that direction. Some in the states want to stay where they were. My job is to push. We have a vision, and we are continuing to push toward that vision.

PR: What do you mean by performance-based?

GR: Previously, we required states to conduct a specific number of inspections or conduct a specific number of reviews. What we did, starting in the fall of 1996 with 14 pilot states, was to shift the focus of safety efforts from inputs to outputs. We ask the states to identify where, what time, and how crashes occur and to focus on reducing crashes, fatalities, and injuries. That data will determine how to allocate resources. We are interested in outcomes and results - reducing crashes and fatalities. We're now telling states, "Let's see the results," and we use funds to focus on the problems. TEA-21 codifies that approach by requiring states to implement performance-based programs by the year 2000. I'm proud to say all the states had adopted the performance-based model in 1998.

PR: What kind of resources does the Office of Motor Carriers have, and how do you allocate them?

GR: We have 670 people in FHWA that focus on motor carrier safety. TEA-21 provided a 30-percent increase in motor carrier safety funding. That's a real plus. Our information analysis and data funds have gone from zero before the act to $65 million over the next six years.

In regard to strategic resources, we got some real hammers in TEA-21. Before, if we had an unfit carrier carrying hazardous material or people, we could put them out of business if they received an unsatisfactory rating. Now, we can put any unfit carrier out of business (unsatisfactory rating). That's a very powerful tool. With the limited resources we have, we need to be very strategic and focused to get the job done.

PR: What will be the allocation of your office's resources?

GR: We are going through an agencywide reorganization in FHWA [Federal Highway Administration]. We have put together a model for the Office of Motor Carriers, saying here is the criterion for the program. On the state level, the resources are allocated based on problem carriers, fatalities, and the number of carriers. At headquarters, we are looking at priorities and making sure the right people are working on the higher priorities.

PR: Why is it important to increase MCSAP funding, and how much does the 30-percent increase in TEA-21 bring the program to? Can you explain MCSAP?

GR: It is important that MCSAP funds increase because as the number of carriers, drivers, and commercial motor vehicles on the road continues to go up, more resources are needed to maintain the same level of compliance.

MCSAP is a grant program from the federal government to the states to enforce uniform federal and state safety and hazardous materials regulations and rules applicable to commercial motor vehicles and their drivers. To qualify for participation, a state must adopt and enforce the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations [FMCSR] or similar state rules that are compatible with the FMCSRs and the Hazardous Material Regulations [HMRs].



MCSAP was funded at $65 million for FY [fiscal year] 94, $74 million for FY 95, and increased to $77.2 million by FY 97. As we discussed before, TEA-21 funding levels increased overall motor carrier safety funding by 30 percent. MCSAP funding increased 21 percent from ISTEA [Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991] levels to $110 million in FY 2003. The objective is to reduce truck and bus involvement in crashes by focusing on the most pressing safety problems associated with large commercial motor vehicles on the nation's highways. At this time, all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and five territories participate in MCSAP.

The states conduct roadside inspection activities. State inspectors follow inspection procedures established by the Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance to ensure uniformity. In addition to the roadside inspection program, many states also conduct compliance reviews at the motor carrier's place of business.

Under MCSAP, states prepare a Commercial Vehicle Safety Plan [CVSP], which outlines how they intend to achieve their objectives under the grant. The governor of each state designates a lead agency to administer the grant program for the state. Basic grant funds reimburse 80 percent of the state's total eligible expenses.

Within the past several years, MCSAP funds have been used not only for basic commercial vehicle and driver inspection activities but in a number of new and innovative programs to improve truck safety.

PR: Can you provide more details on the process of identifying problem carriers and getting them off the road? Is this activity the number one priority of your agency?

GR: In March 1997, FHWA implemented the Safety Status Measurement System [SafeStat] nationally to identify unsafe motor carriers for on-site compliance reviews. SafeStat is an automated analysis system that uses current on-road safety performance data, enforcement history data, and data collected during compliance reviews to generate relative safety fitness measurements of interstate motor carriers.

Before SafeStat was implemented, it was pilot-tested in five states under PRISM [Performance Registration Information System Management], a congressionally mandated feasibility study linking commercial motor vehicle registration with safety. We later confirmed its effectiveness through testing with historical data. This evaluation was done in October 1997 by simulating a carrier identification by SafeStat on an earlier date - April 1, 1996 - and then analyzing the carrier's accident involvement that occurred afterwards over the next 18 months.

The evaluation was conducted by placing motor carriers that had sufficient data to be scored by SafeStat into the three groups based on their overall SafeStat results in order to compare the post-selection crash performance of the groups. The first group comprised motor carriers identified as having the worst SafeStat scores. The second group comprised motor carriers identified as having a poor safety status but not having a high accident rating or Accident SEA value. The third group comprised motor carriers with sufficient data to have an overall SafeStat score assigned to them but were not included in the other two groups.

The first and second groups had post-selection crash rates that were 169 percent and 39 percent higher, respectively, than the third group. SafeStat did indeed identify motor carriers with a higher crash risk. The fact that the second group, which did not have a high Accident SEA value, posed a 39-percent greater crash risk than the third group shows that SafeStat has a proactive ability to identify motor carriers that are likely to be involved in crashes even though they previously did not have high crash rates.

FHWA currently has two authorizing statutory provisions to halt the operations of an unsafe motor carrier. We can order a motor carrier to cease all or part of its operations upon a determination that the operation poses an imminent hazard to safety. Imminent hazard is defined as any condition of vehicle, employee, or commercial motor vehicle operations that is likely to result in serious injury or death if not discontinued immediately.

TEA-21 prohibits the operation of a motor carrier that the agency deems unfit to operate commercial motor vehicles after a 60-day notice period. This parallels existing prohibitions against carriers of passengers or hazardous materials found by FHWA to be unfit after a 45-day notice period. These two groups have a 45-day notice period to correct deficiencies. We are currently developing policies and procedures to implement this statutory authority. Implementation will require notice-and-comment rulemaking.

PR: What is your position on the hours-of-service issue, and when is a final rule expected to be issued?

GR: We have done the fundamental research that needs to be done to tell us the changes that must be made. We have learned that time of day is very important. It is not just the time on the task. There is not a one-to-one relationship for every hour you work at different times. The circadian rhythms have an impact.

We issued an advance notice of proposed rulemaking in November 1996. We received 1,700 comments on that notice. We are now in the process of preparing a notice of proposed rulemaking. Secretary [of Transportation Rodney E.] Slater has told us that hours of service is a high priority and the rulemaking should be completed while this [presidential] administration is in place. Our target is to have it completed by the end of this administration.

PR: Why is the hours-of-service (HOS) rulemaking important?

GR: In some ways, the HOS regulations provide the fuel that powers the engines, at least so far as safe drivers are concerned. The industry has evolved around these regulations, which were initially intended for long-haul operations. Although many recognize that these rules may not provide optimum protection and that one set of rules does not fit well with all the various trucking operations, they are better than no rules at all. Because these rules have become so deeply ingrained into the culture of truck and bus transportation, any changes are bound to produce strong reactions among all stakeholders. Where we can achieve valid improvements to safety supported by scientific study and research, we are obliged to propose and promote such changes.

PR: The agency has been rewriting all commercial motor vehicle regulations under the "Zero Base" program. Can you tell us about that issue?

GR: We are taking a look at all of the commercial motor vehicle regulations we have. We are going to get rid of those that don't make sense. The ones we keep are being rewritten in plain language to make them understandable. A lot of the credit for this program goes to Paul Brennan, the director of the Office of Motor Carrier Research and Standards. People should be able to see the results of the work on this product very shortly in the Federal Register.

We are putting regulations in understandable English; we are getting rid of meaningless regulations; and we have focused on performance-based alternatives that will allow us to look at outcomes. We started this effort in 1992. We have gotten a lot of input from all interested parties. There were listening sessions in the first two information-gathering phases. In this third phase, we developed new, understandable presentations of the regulations for motor carriers, drivers, and vehicles. I sat in on one session where we went over a draft of the driver book with a group of drivers. I was very pleased with the very positive reaction we got from these drivers.

PR: What is the nature of the agency's enforcement role concerning the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations?

GR: We want people to be in compliance with the rules, but we want to emphasize the relationship of compliance and safety benefits. Our goal is to reduce fatalities. In everything we do, we want to make sure there is a safety consideration. We do not want to enforce just for the sake of enforcing, but when we see violations that have an impact on safety, we will be very tough.

PR: A truck driver hotline was established in September. What is the purpose of the hotline, and what are the expected benefits?

GR: We started it as a pilot. It's a very good idea. We want to hear from drivers. It's also a source of feedback and information for us. It's also an outlet for drivers. It will give us more information on safety from the drivers' point of view. We do not underestimate the public's role either, and we are receptive to reports from noncommercial drivers as well. We won't be able to satisfy everyone, but we can look for patterns or significant problems requiring attention. It's a source of information that we cannot overlook. The drivers are there where the rubber meets the road. They know better than anyone when safety starts to slip

PR: We have talked mostly about trucks, but the office also deals with interstate buses. Are there specific problems associated with buses and bus drivers? Are there changes that will be made as a result of TEA-21?

GR: Interstate bus transportation is one of the safest modes of highway transportation, but we must remain vigilant to make sure it stays that way. There are differences in operating characteristics and practices of which we must be more aware.

As for TEA-21, there are some changes that affect bus operations, such as the elimination of economic regulation for charter bus service. Until TEA-21, there was a handful of states that still regulated the charter bus service, but no more.

A second major change in TEA-21 is the change in definition of passenger carriers from 16 or more passengers to more than eight passengers. If this provision becomes effective in June 1999 as prescribed in TEA-21, a whole new population of passenger carriers would become subjected to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations. Rulemaking is currently under way to examine the impact of this change and to explore how to implement this authority in the most beneficial way.

PR: How will technology change the world of motor carriers?

GR: I could go on and on about the impressive array of technological improvements that continue to improve productivity in the trucking industry. In partnership, we can do much more to direct technological advances toward the solution of safety problems. But I would like to limit my answer to improvements we in FHWA are realizing. The benefits of technology fall into two categories. First, what can we do to help safety professionals do their jobs better and faster? Second, what can we do to make vehicles safer? In four years, we have made great strides. The growth of technology and benefits in both productivity and safety are really beginning to materialize.

In the first category, our field people who audit companies now have computers to help them collect and analyze safety information. Roadside inspectors have hand-held computers that can help them select carriers and vehicles for inspection. By entering some basic information, they will be advised whether they must inspect the vehicle, whether to inspect it if they have time, or whether it isn't worth their time. So, they won't be taking time away from problem carriers and vehicles by inspecting vehicles, for instance, that have just been inspected.

One of the biggest problems in the safety performance of vehicles is braking capacity, but we haven't been able to measure the performance of the brakes very effectively. We now have the technology to examine the brakes axle by axle.

Technology in the FHWA, in general, is important. We have to keep pushing for new and better technology. Unfortunately, our research budget has been curtailed somewhat. That will create some impediment to moving ahead as quickly as we want. Even though our funds are limited, the department is doing more as ONE DOT that will help us. (See the article about ONE DOT on page 30.) Human factors research is being done cooperatively with NHTSA [National Highway Traffic Safety Administration] and others. We are looking for ways to create synergies in those areas.

PR: What can we expect in terms of safety in the future? Will we see a decline in fatalities by 2015?

GR: I am very optimistic. Technology will, of course, play a major role. It will give drivers feedback on themselves and their vehicles. There will be computers in the cab that will measure driver fatigue. There will be transponders on brakes to tell drivers if the brakes are not working. Things that are now only on the drawing board will work their way into practical applications that improve safety. I expect to see results in reductions in both the numbers of crashes, particularly fatal crashes, and the rates.

One point I want to make about the future. What we got in TEA-21 for MCSAP and for strategic enforcement is important. It gives us better tools to move to the next level of safety. Congress did a great job. It's now up to the executive branch.

I also want to mention the people in the agency. As we change our vision for the 21st century to performance-based programs, it's important to give people the tools, techniques, and training to do their jobs better. It's incumbent on management to support our people at the point where our programs are delivered because that is where the biggest payoffs occur.

George L. ReagleGeorge L. Reagle

George Reagle became FHWA's associate administrator for Motor Carriers in January 1994, and with the restructuring of FHWA's headquarters, on Jan. 1, 1999, he became the associate administrator for motor carriers and highway safety.

Reagle has a great deal of experience in safety matters. His previous positions include:

1990-1993 Director, Office of Surface Transportation Safety, National Safety Board
1989-1990 Associate Administrator for Enforcement, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA)
1982-1989 Associate Administrator for Traffic Safety Programs, NHTSA
1979-1982 Director, Office of Driver and Pedestrian Programs, NHTSA

He has received numerous honors and awards, including:

  • National Highway Traffic Safety Administrator's Superior Achievement Award in 1976 and in 1978.
  • NHTSA Outstanding Performance Award in 1976, 1977, 1978, 1980, 1982, 1983, 1984, and 1989.
  • Secretary of Transportation Silver Medal in 1980.
  • Congressional Excalibur Outstanding Achievement Award in 1988.

Reagle received a bachelor's degree in psychology and mathematics from the University of Maryland in 1966, and he has completed graduate courses at The George Washington University and the University of Iowa.