FMCSA head tells senators ‘many changes’ prompt new data
By Al Muskewitz
Wright Media Editor-in-Chief
It has been 15 years since government agencies conducted a causation study related to large truck crashes. FMCSA administrator Ray Martinez says it’s time for another one.
Martinez was on Capitol Hill Wednesday along with administrators for railroad, aviation and traffic safety to appear before the Senate’s Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation. The hearing, titled “FAST Act Reauthorization: Transportation and Safety Issues” examined the implementation of the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act and priorities for Department of Transportation as Congress prepares for surface transportation reauthorization.
The FAST Act expires at the end of fiscal year 2020.
Martinez told the Senate panel since the original two-year Congressionally mandated study, which ended in 2003, “many changes” in technology, vehicle safety, driver behavior and roadway design have occurred that affect driver performance.
He offered statistics that indicated since 2009 fatal crashes involving large trucks have risen to 4,237 in 2017, a 46.5 percent increase. From 2016 to 2017, the number of large trucks involved in fatal crashes increased 10 percent.
Multiple studies, he noted, indicate most crashes involving large trucks are the result of driver behaviors and errors, and other motorists – not professional truck drivers – are more likely to be at fault.
The new causation study would be just another part of the trucking industry taking necessary “proactive steps to continually improve its safety record.”
“Mr. Chairman, we believe that it is time for another causation study,” Martinez said in prepared remarks for the record. “A new LTCCS (Large Truck Crash Causation Study) can help FMCSA identify factors that are contributing to the growth in fatal large truck crashes, and in both injury and property-damage-only crashes. Analyzing these factors will drive new initiatives to reduce crashes on our nation’s roadways.
“The public expects a safe, efficient and reliable transportation system. With your support, FMCSA employees – working with our partners and stakeholders – will continue to share this solemn commitment to preserving that reliable transportation system, as well as maintaining safety for all road users.”
Also appearing as witnesses at the hearing were Federal Railroad Administrator Ronald Batory; deputy administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration Heidi King; and Joel Szabat, DOT’s assistant secretary for aviation and international affairs.
Martinez took questions from the senators on hours of service exemptions for livestock haulers/agriculture, ELDs and the status of Under 21 drivers for interstate commerce.
Martinez told the lawmakers the comment period on the HOS exemption was closed and FMCSA was currently reviewing the more than 350 public comments it received. He declined to offer a timeline for the expectation of further action. Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) told Martinez he would “encourage” the review be done expeditiously.
Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) urged a “common sense” approach in both the HOS and Under-21 issues.
Although wages weren’t a part of the discussion, Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.), in a lighter moment, told Martinez his father, a former truck driver, would be “real excited now” because drivers get paid “a lot more” than he did when the senator was growing up. Scott also seemed to favor ELDs, saying his father didn’t really like to fill out his logbooks and usually did it at the end of the day.
Turning to the issues at hand, Scott asked Martinez’ opinion on allowing truck drivers under 21 on the road. Martinez told him of the DOT’s pilot program for 18-20-year-olds with military driving experience, but said there would need at least 200 participants for the study to be viable.
“We understand there is a shortage of drivers, so we want to be helpful there, but our primary focus remains safety,” Martinez said
The FMCSA administrator agreed a 1930-era rule that allows a driver to go all within the borders of large states like Tennessee, Texas, California and New York but can’t cross the state line “makes you scratch your head” and “deserves a good hard look now” because technology has changed.
But Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), another co-sponsor of the bill, suggested the pilot program wouldn’t provide the most accurate results of what the study aims to discover because most participants already have driving experience in the military and are already eligible to drive across state lines. He recommended FMCSA come forth with an idea to support the educational element in the bill “because if the department doesn’t support it, we’re not going to get it passed because everybody’s concerned about safety.”
That thought was shared through the hearing.
“Even though we think we’re safe today, we can be safer tomorrow,” Batory said.