FMCSA Answers Your Driver Questions

Audit AheadBefore I begin, let me preface my responses to your questions by expressing my appreciation for the opportunity to be heard by readers of Welding & Gases Today. It is always a privilege to communicate about the activities of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA), for which I ‘ve had the good fortune to work in various capacities for the past 17 years. FMCSA is focused on reducing crashes, injuries and fatalities involving large trucks and buses. Given the size and scope of the truck and bus industries in the United States, this is a daunting challenge. We must produce a regulatory environment that encourages safe behavior for motor carriers involved in for-hire operations and private operations; carriers operating locally, regionally or nationally; large tractor-trailers, heavy straight trucks such as dump trucks, local delivery trucks and a myriad of service vehicles. I would ask that you keep these requirements in mind as you read my responses to your questions.

Questions were submitted by GAWDA distributors to Welding & Gases Today, and given to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration for response.

You will note three strategies highlighted in my responses below that are general in nature and, I believe, critical to operating commercial motor vehicles in our country. First, I frequently point out information on our Web site. FMCSA has a lot of information available at www.fmcsa.dot.gov, including regulations, summaries of research, data about the motor carrier industry, information on grants we give to states and others, and education materials for carriers, drivers and the public. Second, I recommend anyone in the commercial vehicle industry establish a network to obtain the latest information about regulations and also other non-regulatory industry news. Finally, I urge participation in FMCSA’s rulemaking processes. I cannot stress enough how critical it is that the agency hear from drivers, the industry, safety advocates, law enforcement and other state officials, and the public during our rulemaking processes.

Thank you again, and now on to your questions.


FMCSA regulations are written in legal language, and it can be difficult at times to stay on top of them or interpret them accurately. A business owner may read it one way and an FMCSA representative may interpret it yet another way. Has there been any discussion about writing the regulations in clearer language so that both carriers and enforcement personnel can understand them equally?

Trying to balance producing a regulation that is legally sufficient to be upheld in an administrative procedure but is also easy to understand is one of our bigger challenges. Believe it or not, we strive to ensure that regulations are written in clear and plain-spoken language. I recognize that we sometimes fall short of that goal. This is an area where receiving comments when we propose a new regulation would be extremely helpful. If you can’t understand what we are requiring, we need to hear that in the comments.

FMCSA also tries to assist understanding of the regulations through the educational and technical assistance package titled A Motor Carrier’s Guide to Improving Highway Safety on our Web site at http://www.fmcsa.dot.gov/safety-security/eta/index.htm. In that package, we attempt to explain the regulation in clearer language. We also frequently publish interpretations of our regulations that can be found at http://www.fmcsa.dot.gov/rules-regulations/administration/fmcsr/fmcsrguide.aspx?section_type=G, and we publish questions and answers regarding significant rules, such as the recent revisions to the New Entrant regulations at http://www.fmcsa.dot.gov/rules-regulations/topics/NESA/index.aspx.

For many of us, the state line may be just a few miles away. Why are regulations so complicated for distributors trying to do business across state lines?

Under the U.S. Constitution, the federal government is responsible for regulating interstate commerce. That means that the federal regulations become effective when a carrier crosses state lines or transports interstate cargo. There are some instances where the federal government determined that safety requires a regulation, while individual states do feel the need to regulate that same move when it is intrastate (wholly within one state and not involving interstate cargo) .

For vehicles above 26,000 pounds, the state and FMCSA requirements should be fairly consistent. This is because FMCSA requires the states to adopt our safety regulations similar to ours for vehicles 26,000 pounds and above for intrastate commerce, as a condition for receiving grant funding from our agency. So, hopefully, in most places the interstate and intrastate requirements are not significantly different. States do have the option of not regulating commercial vehicles with a gross vehicle weight rating less than 26,000 pounds.

What triggers FMCSA to audit one distributor as opposed to another?

For the most part, FMCSA uses data regarding a carrier’s performance on the highways to determine which carriers we choose for investigation. We look at a carrier’s performance during roadside inspections (how many violations are discovered and how severe they are), violations during driving (how many times drivers are cited for moving violations) and the number of crashes. We “normalize” all this data based on the number of power units operated by a carrier and compare the performance of carriers to one another. The system currently being used for this is called SafeStat. More information regarding the SafeStat system can be found at http://ai.fmcsa.dot.gov/SafeStat/SafeStatMain.asp.

FMCSA is also required by statute to investigate complaints regarding regulatory violations. We also place special emphasis on hazardous materials carriers. Finally, FMCSA will frequently conduct an investigation following a severe crash or hazardous materials incident.

Regulatory paperwork continues to be a real challenge, especially for a small business. Is there anything we can do or that the FMCSA is doing to cut down on all the paperwork? Is electronic processing in the future?

As a regulatory agency, FMCSA relies a lot on paperwork to ensure that carriers are complying with our regulatory requirements. It is difficult to determine if a driver is within the allowable number of driving hours, for instance, without being able to view his log book (or record of duty status as they are officially known). However, with every new regulation, we examine the impacts on small businesses and the paperwork burdens. The agency issues notices in the Federal Register whenever we make a substantial change to the paperwork burdens. One thing you can do is provide FMCSA information on the impacts to your business when we propose changes to our forms or issue new regulations.

Before we adopt a new regulation, FMCSA publishes a “Notice of Proposed Rulemaking” in the Federal Register and on our Web site. Having industry read these proposals and provide comments is an essential piece of the regulatory process. We rely on industry information to ensure that our proposals can be implemented and that our estimation of the impacts is realistic. To the extent that our proposal implements new paperwork requirements that you believe are unnecessary, your comments and explanation should reflect this view. It is important, however, for these comments to recognize FMCSA’s need to oversee compliance with our regulations and suggest alternative ways we can accomplish our mission without the proposed paperwork.

With respect to electronic processing, FMCSA is always looking for ways to increase electronic processing of information to reduce the burden on FMCSA, as well as the industry. We currently allow carriers to view and update their information online, which saves the re-typing of much information. We also allow carriers to submit their drug and alcohol testing surveys to the agency electronically (every year we request drug and alcohol information from a limited sample of motor carriers so that we can monitor trends in the industry). We also allow carriers to use automatic or electronic on-board recorders as an alternative to paper log books and will soon be updating that standard to allow more flexibility.

Again, if there are specific areas you believe FMCSA can move toward electronic processing of information to save you time and money, I would encourage you to bring those ideas to our attention. This can be done informally with a letter to me or other FMCSA officials, or through a formal request for rulemaking, if we would need to change a regulation, which can be requested under the provisions of Part 389 of our regulations.

The task of background clearances, fingerprinting, etc., has become very time-consuming and difficult to manage. Is there any discussion concerning some type of a nationalized licensure that will be utilized by multiple federal agencies?

It is important for me to begin this response by letting you know that the background check requirements for hazardous materials drivers are administered by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) within the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). With that in mind, I can tell you there is an ongoing discussion regarding a nationalized credential that will be used by multiple federal agencies. There have been multiple bills introduced in Congress to accomplish this very goal, although none have yet been implemented into law.

It’s difficult enough finding drivers that have a hazmat endorsement; with an added $94 fingerprint charge, it’s getting even worse. Plus, it can take up to 12 weeks or more for the check to go through and get that driver on the road. Is there any discussion about changing the fingerprinting requirement to make the process faster?

Please see my response to the previous question. When the background check requirement was first implemented, FCMSA did change our regulations to allow states to send out reminders for license renewals up to 90 days before the license expires, so that drivers could begin the process earlier (it was previously 30 days) and hopefully complete the process before the expiration of the license.

What assistance does FMCSA offer to help small businesses with regulatory compliance? Webinars? Conferences?

FMCSA has an educational and technical assistance package titled A Motor Carrier’s Guide to Improving Highway Safety on our Web site at http://www.fmcsa.dot.gov/safety-security/eta/index.htm. A link to this information is sent to every carrier that registers with the Agency online, and hard copies are mailed to those carriers registering by mailing their application. I would recommend that any carrier interested in obtaining more information begin with this document. It provides an overview of the regulatory provisions and provides sample forms that carriers can use to comply with many of our requirements.

FMCSA employees also frequently give presentations concerning our regulations to industry groups at state trucking associations, safety meetings and conferences. I encourage carriers to establish and maintain networks within the industry to learn about and take advantage of these opportunities to get additional information. FMCSA also participates in national or syndicated trucking radio programs to communicate directly with the truck drivers on the road.

In developing regulations, does the FMCSA consider the costs and operational demands involved in staying in compliance? If so, in what way?

FMCSA does consider the costs of any new proposed regulations. We consider operational costs to the industry, the time and cost of any new paperwork requirements, the costs to states to implement our new regulations, and specifically examine the impacts on small businesses. I again encourage all members to participate in our rulemaking process by looking at the proposed rules and telling us how they will impact your operations. As you do this, keep in mind that FMCSA generally has a safety issue or legal mandate we must address. So suggesting alternative ways we can accomplish the issues is more helpful in comments than broad statements that the rule cannot be implemented. Also, any data you can provide to support your position are extremely useful to the agency and strengthens the comments you submit.

GREAT READ

In his book Traffic: Why We Drive The Way We Do (And What It Says About Us), Tom Vanderbilt writes about traffic jams, how late merging in a work zone actually speeds up the traffic flow, why our minds trick us into thinking the next lane is moving faster, and the misrepresentation of truck-car crashes. In most cases when cars and trucks collide, the car bears the greater share of what are called “contributory factors.” He takes on the caricature that the highways are filled with fatigued truck drivers using drugs to keep them awake. “The more pressing problem seems to be that car drivers do not fully understand the risk of heavy trucks as they drive in their presence.”

The information we receive relating to FMCSA regulations typically comes from our association representative. Sometimes business owners also get information from their drivers who have heard something on the driver radio channel. Is there some sort of direct notification system from FMCSA that we should be aware of?

The best way to keep abreast of new regulations is through our Web site at www.fmcsa.dot.gov. At that Web site, you can sign up for the Web page to send alerts through the eSubscribe box on the right side of the page. This service will send an e-mail when new information on proposed or final rules is published by the agency.

Are there standard times of the year when new regulations are released? Is there a grace period for compliance? If so, how long is it?

We do not have standard times of the year when we publish new regulations. Regulations are published as they are completed throughout the year. The regulations are not usually effective immediately, but rather after an effective date which is also published in the rule. This effective date can be as soon as 30 days or as much as several years, depending on the complexity of the new rule and the time our agency believes it will take the industry to prepare for the new regulation.

What are some of the big issues on the horizon for your agency?

While we are always working on numerous programs, such as our medical standards and updates to the Commercial Drivers License regulations, I want to focus on three to share with your readers. The first is a revision of the driver’s hours-of-service regulations. FMCSA recently agreed in the settlement of a lawsuit brought by safety advocates and the Teamsters to re-examine our hours-of-service regulations. We began that process by having listening sessions in January and receiving written comments to the rulemaking docket (Go to http://www.regulations.gov and follow the online instructions for submitting comments Public docket, FMCSA-2004-19608). Using input from stakeholders, we will publish a notice of proposed rulemaking before the end of the year. Obviously, this is a regulatory area that affects most operators and will be something Welding & Gases Today readers will want to follow closely.

The second issue is distracted driving. There are an ever-increasing number of devices in our vehicles that can distract drivers from their primary task of driving. FMCSA determined that distracted driving creates a significantly higher risk of crashes and will be proposing rules to prohibit or limit distracting behaviors. We will first take on the extremely dangerous topic of “texting” while driving and subsequently initiate rules regarding other types of distraction such as cell phone use, GPS devices or fleet dispatch units.

Finally, I want to bring to your attention an initiative we call “Comprehensive Safety Analysis 2010” or “CSA 2010” for short. CSA 2010 is an initiative to restructure the way the agency identifies high-risk carriers, the way we intervene with carriers to attempt to correct problems, and the way we assign carriers safety ratings. In CSA 2010, we will move from identifying carriers only based on serious out-of-service violations to using all violations noted on roadside inspections. We are also being more specific regarding where we see the need for regulatory compliance. Currently, we have four general categories of problems: driver, vehicle, safety management and crashes. Under CSA 2010, we will have seven behavioral categories: unsafe driving, fatigue, drug and alcohol, driver qualification, vehicle, cargo securement and crashes.

If we determine a carrier is having problems in one or more of these behavioral categories, we may use a variety of interventions to attempt to resolve the problems. Our interventions will range from sending a warning letter making the carrier aware of the problem, to conducting a targeted review in the area we are seeing problems, or a comprehensive review of a carrier’s entire operation (similar to our current compliance review). To learn more about CSA 2010, I encourage you to go to http://csa2010.fmcsa.dot.gov/ and read more.

Gases and Welding Distributors Association
Bill Quade Meet the Author

William A. Quade is associate administrator for enforcement and program delivery at the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration in Washington, D.C., and on the Web at www.fmcsa.dot.gov.