The Secretary of Transportation asked the Independent Review Team (IRT) to provide actionable information for his response to National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) recommendations issued after its investigation of four commercial vehicle crashes and to provide insights and perspectives on other opportunities for the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) to improve motor carrier safety.
The IRT has been impressed with the talent and dedication of the people of FMCSA. These men and women demonstrate great energy and professionalism in the way they approach their duties. During the IRT’s interview process they also displayed a genuine openness to new ideas and enthusiasm for positive change. In our opinion, they labor under an extraordinary operational workload and their willingness to seek more effective approaches, even while under such pressure, is noteworthy and commendable.
The IRT found that FMCSA’s current compliance review (CR) process does not consistently generate the intended results. The current leaders of FMCSA share many of the concerns of the NTSB and other stakeholders about this process. Current operating conditions and methods appear to constrain FMCSA. This report is intended to assist USDOT and FMCSA in finding the best path forward for the organization.
FMCSA has multiple stakeholder groups interested in improving its performance. This review constitutes one of several initiatives to examine FMCSA performance, either underway or anticipated in the near future. There have been multiple audits and critical reviews made in the past, some by oversight agencies and some as a result of congressional interest.
Ironically, the cumulative effect of prior critiques has been to add substantial requirements for safety oversight (“mandatory CRs”), which has exacerbated the production pressure on front line staff, limited their discretion, and reduced their ability to focus their attention and actions on the risks that really count. They now seem so busy trying to keep up with their mandated investigation load that they have limited opportunity to align their operations with current and emerging risks.
FMCSA is in the midst of a major initiative to improve the effectiveness of the Agency’s compliance and enforcement programs, and has reached a challenging juncture in the change management process. The IRT believes that the current operating dynamics within FMCSA require significant changes. Without these changes, the organization will have great difficulty enhancing its safety oversight of the motor carrier industry to the level everyone desires.
This report addresses some of these fundamental dynamics and presents a range of recommendations to support both incremental and transformative improvements. Most of the recommendations are directed toward FMCSA, though many of them will require the support or consent of industry, elected officials, and other stakeholders. FMCSA clearly needs the cooperation of all stakeholders in order to make substantial progress.
Compliance, Safety, Accountability Program: FMCSA needs to better align compliance and enforcement processes with the safety risks that cause crashes. The Compliance, Safety, Accountability (CSA) program is designed to do that, but it has been only partially implemented. Today the Agency has a safety measurement system (SMS) in place that is based on a motor carrier’s on-road performance (thus focused on data regarding inspection results, traffic violations, and crashes). Once a motor carrier has been flagged for attention, field investigators follow up with CRs conducted at the motor carrier’s place of business. These reviews focus on issues that can be examined at the office, such as: records, driver logs, maintenance programs, substance abuse control programs. In some instances, CRs focus on issues quite different from those that may have triggered the need for greater scrutiny. This disconnect affects FMCSA’s everyday operations. The IRT recommends examining all options for expediting the safety fitness rulemaking, which is intended to complete the alignment. The IRT particularly recommends approaches that can increase the effective participation of stakeholders in helping to resolve this problem, with additional recommendations for interim policy changes while the rulemaking is in progress.
SMS Resource Prioritization: The IRT found that while FMCSA has a system for prioritizing its field resources to investigate high-risk carriers, it lacks a process to actively manage risk concentrations once identified. This shortcoming emerges as a factor in crashes, including those cited by the NTSB. This report offers short-term recommendations for dealing with established risk concentrations, as well as suggestions for how to make the prioritization system more targeted and nimble in the longer term.
SMS Data: The CSA program has ignited a debate across the industry regarding the appropriate use of safety data. It is now clear that this debate, if not refocused, could stall the adoption of safety practices the industry needs and the public expects. For that reason, the IRT offers proposals for incremental improvements to the SMS that may exploit common ground between the interests of FMCSA, the regulated industry, and other stakeholders.
CR Process: FMCSA is taking measures to improve the quality of its investigations. However, the investigations do not consistently result in cited violations that target the highest risk behaviors. The IRT suggests that the Agency establish, in its improvement measures, a clear priority of CR quality over numbers completed; develop a data- informed spectrum of CRs to replace the current constraining distinctions; and empower field level discretion in conducting those CRs, with a robust review/feedback process for consistency and quality.
Enforcement of Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations (FMCSR) Compliance: FMCSA has recently sought and been granted additional enforcement authority. However, the agency needs to improve its enforcement policies and procedures to take better advantage of this authority. The IRT suggests near-term enforcement policy changes that could enable the Agency to focus action more effectively in areas of highest risk. We also propose some valuable new additions to the range of enforcement and compliance tools available to the Agency.
Quality Assurance/Control: In an effort to achieve consistency across different investigators, divisions, and regions of the country, FMCSA has relied heavily on prescriptive rules and procedures. An accountability structure relying more on quality assurance and retrospective back-end controls would provide FMCSA field staff greater flexibility while increasing their ability to deliver important results tailored to local conditions. The IRT offers suggestions on how FMCSA might change its systems for holding field operations accountable.
Partnership with the States: FMCSA relies on state and local partnerships to carry out its responsibilities. Interviews with state employees surfaced some concerns about the equality of some of these relationships. It is clearly in all parties’ interests that these partnerships be strong. The IRT offers one recommendation for ensuring that these relationships meet their purposes and public expectations.
Beyond Compliance: The IRT’s tasking was initiated based on the NTSB’s recommended examination of FMCSA’s CR process, including focused reviews. However, we believe it is vitally important for FMCSA to move beyond its focus on conducting CRs and embrace a broader and more balanced portfolio of safety tools. Based on extensive interviews with Agency personnel and external stakeholders, the IRT is aware that FMCSA is moving in this direction, and the IRT offers an improved glide path to effective change management. The IRT suggests an array of alternative safety initiatives and programs that have been tried and tested in other industries. The IRT also discusses the role that voluntary safety programs might play in delivering safety enhancements that move substantially beyond those achievable through traditional compliance methods. In the motor carrier industry, where thousands of lives are lost and on average more than one hundred thousand are injured every year, the case for adopting a modern portfolio of strategies seems to us compelling.