The trucking industry’s overseer is giving little ground to critics who asked Congress to loosen U.S. regulations and revise a rating system designed to root out unsafe carriers.
The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s acting chief, Scott Darling, defended rules aimed at requiring more rest, including consecutive nights during a 34-hour end-of-the- week break. Congress last year suspended the provision for a year and mandated research about the effect of forcing more trucks onto the road during the morning rush hour.
“The agency is not aware of study results or data that suggests the 2011 rule forced drivers to shift their work schedules from nighttime operations to daytime operations,” Darling said Wednesday at a hearing of the Senate subcommittee on surface transportation.
The hearing revived discussion of how best to reduce fatigue among truck drivers. The Transportation Department has said it structured its regulations to close a loophole that was used by some to enable 82-hour workweeks in some cases.
Lawmakers and industry groups said regulators hadn’t considered the consequences of more big rigs on congested roads in the daytime.
In 2013, 3,964 people were killed in truck-related highway crashes according to a Transportation Department report released in December. That’s up 0.5 percent from 2012, even though highway deaths involving all types of vehicles fell 3.1 percent to 32,719.
The National Transportation Safety Board has long recommended more nighttime rest for truck drivers, based on crash investigations, its acting chairman, Christopher Hart, told the subcommittee. As much as 24 percent of fatal crashes involve moderate to severe drowsiness, Hart said, citing a 2006 Transportation Department study.
U.S. trucking regulators also need to step up their efforts to find and shut down unsafe operators before crashes occur, Hart said. Safety board investigations have shown that FMCSA has overlooked red-flag safety violations, moving to shut down companies only after fatalities have occurred, Hart said.
Witnesses also sparred on a data-collection program FMCSA uses to target companies for audits. With only enough inspectors to audit a small percentage of about 500,000 U.S. trucking companies, the regulator has to use statistics on traffic stops, crashes and drug and alcohol violations to prioritize carriers for review, Darling said. The agency’s system is working well because it flags high-risk behaviors.
A Government Accountability Office audit of FMCSA’s data showed that some of the agency’s scores don’t effectively compare performance across the industry. Some regulations are violated too infrequently to accurately predict crash risk, said Susan Fleming, GAO’s director of physical infrastructure issues. The agency hasn’t collected enough data on most carriers to reliably compare them with others, Fleming said.
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