August 2013 | Commentary | Viewpoint

When Government Oversight of Motor Carriers Fails, Shippers Pay

Tags: Trucking, Legislation, Public Policy, and Regulations, Safety

Patrick Labriola is President, Transportation Safety Exchange, 703-966-6494

While overall truck accident rates have been trending lower over the past several years, avoidable carrier accidents are still common. Comprehensive safety compliance reviews (CRs) by the U.S. Department of Transportation's Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) protect lives and property.

In the year after a CR is conducted, crashes decrease 16.3 percent, according to the Volpe National Transportation Systems Center. Because of the labor requirements for CRs, however, FMCSA often uses performance data as an indicator of potential risk.

Unfortunately, this data is not an effective accident predictor, according to 2012 studies. Even if it were, FMCSA's review capabilities are limited; the lack of data makes it possible to score only about 12 percent of the entire industry.

When FMCSA does conduct a compliance review, it is often because a motor carrier has an excessive number of out-of-service violations or accidents. The program is reactive, and the CR is initiated only when the agency believes the carrier is a potential risk.

Despite evidence that safety compliance reviews reduce the number of accidents, fewer than 20,000 motor carriers are subject to state or federal inspection every year. With FMCSA reporting more than 700,000 freight carriers and 52,000 hazardous material carriers in operation, this is clearly an inadequate system.

Increased Legal Exposure of Shippers and Brokers

A proactive, market-driven approach to transportation safety compliance is overdue, both to mitigate the inherent risks to life and property, and to reduce shipper and broker liability exposure. Recent judicial rulings and proposed legislation make them liable for failing to seek high safety standards when selecting a motor carrier.

Given the low percentage of compliance reviews, motor carriers themselves may lack the information to know if their current safety levels are the result of good practices or good luck.

This means they must take matters into their own hands by adopting a zero-tolerance stance for unsafe actions, and making safety a critical part of their culture. Motor carriers cannot wait for the government to tell them what to do; rather, they must take the initiative to be safe.

Shippers and brokers must also do their part by recognizing their added risk and responsibility, and evaluating and vetting the safety records of the motor carriers they use.

This evaluation must take into account the motor carrier's safety management controls, going beyond publicly available information to include a review of operating maintenance policies, driver qualification/management programs (including drug and alcohol testing, Hours-of-Service compliance, and driver background tests), on-site evaluations, customer references, and insurance.

Some motor carriers offer higher-quality services than others, and the marketplace should recognize and reward those with excellent compliance and safety standards. When lives and livelihoods depend on safe, high-quality carriers, having a quick, easy, and reliable means of identifying them is critical.

By promoting the fact that they meet or exceed high and objective quality standards, motor carriers gain a competitive advantage and market differentiation, while keeping our roads safer.