A dump truck carrying broken-up concrete cruised along 42nd Street near Interstate 80 until Trooper John Lewis spotted a problem and pulled the truck over.
He inspected it for about 15 minutes, issued a violation and logged his findings. It was the truck's flipped-up tag axle — a mechanism that helps distribute a truck's weight and should be down while a truck is loaded — that tipped Lewis off. But it turned out the truck was overweight, too.
“You never know what you'll find,” said Lewis, a trooper in the Nebraska State Patrol's carrier enforcement division.
Information gathered during commercial truck inspections is a critical step in adhering to federal carrier regulations, which have gone through a number of changes the last couple of years — primarily adding technology that gives regulators the ability to track and accumulate data.
The program introduced in 2010 — which has modifications rolling out in December — checks a driver's history, tracks on-road activities and identifies when and why a driver should be taken off the road.
The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration has praised the program, saying better data is making the roads safer. In August, the agency reported that fatalities involving commercial vehicles dropped 4.7 percent last year compared to 2010.
“Also, in 2011, roadside inspection violation rates decreased by 8 percent and driver violation rates decreased by 10 percent. These are the most dramatic improvements in violation patterns in a decade,” FMCSA Administrator Anne Ferro testified last week before a House committee.
Local carriers support efforts to make the roads safer, but have mixed views on whether the federal program has done that. They say the industry already was improving safety and the program contributes to a driver shortage by unnecessarily removing drivers who are safe and have taken essential training courses.
The loss of drivers raises carrier costs that ultimately are passed on to consumers in higher prices.
The 2010 changes have eliminated between 2 percent and 4 percent of drivers from the industry, said Derek Leathers, the president and chief operating officer of Sarpy County-based Werner Enterprises. Those drivers have either quit on their own, or have been terminated by their companies because of their scores under the federal program.
Leathers sees the safety program as an incomplete one because it doesn't take into consideration accountability, he said. Currently, crash data is included on a driver's score, regardless of who is at fault of a crash.
“If a car hits me broadside while I'm parked, it's still an accident for my company,” he said. “The comparisons themselves are fundamentally flawed, and the effect is that there's been a rush for compliance, and you've seen some drivers select out of the industry. ... The fact we have a driver shortage already, this has exacerbated it.”
In addition to accountability, carriers question whether the CSA scoring methodology and severity ratings can actually predict or prevent a crash, Leathers said.
Under the 2010 Compliance, Safety, Accountability program, a new Safety Management System replaced a system called Safestat. Before, only violations serious enough to put a vehicle out of service and commercial motor vehicle crashes determined a Safestat score. But with CSA, a driver's score is based on seven categories, including unsafe driving, fatigued driving, driver fitness, controlled substances/alcohol, vehicle maintenance, cargo-related and crash indicator.
Each violation carries a weight, which is scaled from 1 to 10, according to its risk of resulting in a crash. Drivers aim for a low score, which indicates few or no violations.
Modifications to the program are set to take effect in December, and some changes move further away from the program's original intent, said Tim Aschoff, vice president of risk management for Lincoln-based Crete Carrier.
Changing the cargo-related rule to a hazardous materials rule is one of those, he said. An inspection could reveal that a truck's hazardous material placard is crooked and not horizontal, which is a violation that would result in points on the driver's record.
“Because a placard isn't completely horizontal doesn't mean a truck is going to have a crash,” he said.
Other changes set to change in December include:
» Renaming the fatigued driving rule to hours-of-service. FMCSA will weigh hours-of-service paper and electronic logbook violations equally.
» Strengthening the vehicle maintenance rule by including cargo/load securement violations.
» Including intermodal equipment violations that should be found during drivers' pre-trip inspections.
» Removing 1- to 5-miles-per-hour over the limit speeding violations.
The rules set to take effect in December had a four-month public review period, in which 14,000 carriers and 1,700 law enforcement personnel participated.
State-wide numbers gathered through the Nebraska State Patrol's Motor Carrier Safety Assistance Program indicate commercial motor vehicle crashes, fatalities and injuries have been on the decline for years.
In 1989, there were 2,444 commercial motor vehicle crashes and 115 fatalities in Nebraska. In 2011, there were 1,010 crashes and 29 fatalities.
“If the rationale was to improve safety, the first reasonable question to ask is, ‘Is safety already improving?' Leathers said. “The industry is on a 15-year run rate on improved safety. This added complexity.”
The American Trucking Association has called on federal officials to make changes to the program that would better evaluate carriers. While Aschoff believes the CSA is a step in the right direction, he and Leathers both see room for improvement. “It's just a matter of fine-tuning the system to make sure it's utilizing the right data in the right way,” Aschoff said.
Johnson called the program a work in progress.
“It's difficult to have a one-size-fits-all system,” he said.
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