Federal agency reversing course on trucking safety regulations

Under the previous administration, regulators with the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, which regulates commercial trucking, had drafted a number of regulations aimed at reducing truck crashes. The new administration has now halted or reversed a number of those safety gains, and traffic safety advocates are worried.

"All the numbers are trending the wrong way," said the head of the Truck Safety Coalition. "We're over 4,000 deaths a year now in truck crashes. It's been going up steadily and we need to do something now."

That’s true. According to the FMCSA itself, 4,311 large trucks and buses were involved in fatal collisions in 2015. Substantial progress had been made on reducing that number between 2005 and 2009, when the number reached a low of 3,432. The following year began a trend of shocking growth in the numbers of fatal wrecks involving trucks and buses. Since 2009, those wrecks have increased by 26 percent. There was a 5-percent jump between 2014 and 2015 alone.

The same is true in injury accidents involving trucks and buses. The accident rate dropped steadily between 2005 and 2009 only to rise by 62 percent between 2009 and 2015.

If traffic safety rules make a difference in the crash rate, now doesn’t seem to be the time to cut back on those rules. Unfortunately, it appears to be happening.

For example, the FMCSA had been drafting a new rule requiring commercial drivers to be screened for sleep apnea, as driver fatigue is a common factor in truck wrecks. In August, the administration reversed course on that rule.

In recent months, the agency has changed direction on a number of safety rules. It canceled a rework of the safety rating system for motor carriers. It put a halt to a rule that might have required long-haul trucks to install speed-limiting devices. It ended efforts to require underride guards on truck trailers, which are aimed at keeping cars from becoming wedged underneath trailers. It stopped an effort to require automatic emergency braking on commercial trucks.

Fighting to end the role of ‘comic books’ in trucking

Other provisions are moving forward -- for now. In a few weeks, truckers will be required to begin using electronic logging devices (ELDs), which replace the paper log books that track the number of hours each driver has spent behind the wheel. The paper log books date back to the 1930s and are sometimes referred to as “comic books” because of how easy they are to falsify.

Midsize and larger carriers are already making the switch. Many already use ELDs throughout their fleets. It’s the smaller carriers and independent drivers who are having problems. Many complain about the cost of the devices. According to NPR, the most popular ELD costs almost $500. These smaller operators have asked the FMCSA to delay implementation of the rule or to exempt drivers who have good driving records.

Yet safety advocates point out that driver fatigue is one of the Top 10 factors associated with commercial truck wrecks, according to the FMCSA’s own data. Those factors included:

  • Brake problems
  • Interruptions in the traffic flow (congestion, previous crash)
  • Prescription drug use
  • Driving too fast for conditions
  • Lack of familiarity with the roadway
  • Roadway problems (poor maintenance, debris, etc.)
  • Having to stop before the crash (traffic control device, crosswalk)
  • Over-the-counter drug use
  • Inadequate surveillance of the road
  • Driver fatigue

"We see these issues in crash after crash, and we're tired, yes we are tired, of seeing commercial drivers being tired," said the head of the National Transportation Safety Board in 2016.

With President Trump promising to cancel two regulations for every one approved, there is reason to be concerned that more highway safety regulations could be cut. Which ones are on the chopping block may not be clear until a new FMSCA administrator takes office. Trump’s nominee is expected be confirmed in upcoming weeks.

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