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Risk is neither public nor private

By Matthew A. Daecher

The exemptions often afforded government and quasi-government entities when it comes to safety initiatives are one of the ironies of government-imposed regulations.
Federal Occupational Health & Safety Administration (OSHA) Standards, which govern workplace and employee safety, are not applicable to government entities, nor are Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations that govern commercial vehicle safety. This imposes more regulatory requirements on private operations that sometimes find themselves competing against government funded entities, either for specific jobs or as providers of recurring services.
On the workplace and employee safety side of the coin, many states have adopted their own  “approved” workplace safety plans that cover public sector employees and provide protections equivalent to OSHA Standards. States that have done this receive funding for portions of their programs from the federal government.
Looking at the transportation side of the coin, federal government funding of municipal-operated transit operations works much the same way, at least when it comes to controlled substance and alcohol testing. However, beyond controlled substance and alcohol testing requirements set forth through funding mandates by the Federal Transit Administration (FTA), there are few vehicle-based operational safety regulations applicable to government-operated transit operations.
Most state regulators were somewhat smart in adopting the federally-established carrier safety regulations that govern interstate commerce. After all, why reinvent the wheel and create vastly different intrastate standards for state enforcement personnel to enforce?
The problem with this situation is that many state regulatory bodies adopting the federal regulations as the primary law either didn’t know the government-operated exemption existed or chose to adopt it nonetheless.
Is there a reason these exemptions make sense? For instance, are government-operated systems inherently safer due to other factors? Is it because the people riding on these systems are less important? Is it because the financial exposure to the operator or insurer of them is less?
The answer to all these questions is no. While one may think that government funding would create safer practices, often that is just not the case.
Customers who ride a transit system, regardless of whether it is privately or publicly operated, are usually more susceptible to injury due to the disproportionate number of fragile passengers. Regardless of what many think, there are few exemptions to liability for government-operated systems.
I am not talking about any profound differences either. I am talking about basic, common sense initiatives which reside in regulations; those operating practices that are set forth as the minimum safety standard.
Physical qualification standards and exams for drivers? Not required if a state simply adopted the FMCSA regulations. Annual driver license inspections and violation reviews? Not required if a state simply adopted the FMCSA regulations. Daily vehicle inspections by drivers? Not required if a state simply adopted the FMCSA regulations. Hours of service limitations for drivers? Not required if a state simply adopted the FMCSA regulations.
As you can see, these exemptions include the most basic of safety principles. They do not include driver hiring criteria, driver training protocols, accident investigation practices, or other practices that could reduce crash risk and increase passenger safety.
To their credit, some states — including my home state of Pennsylvania — have removed the government-entity exemption when they adopted the FMCSRs for their own intrastate operations.
However, the list of those states that have done so is few and far between. And, while some publicly-operated transit systems have realized this gap and implemented internal policies to bridge it, there are substantially more who simply operate in a void of regulation, intentional or not.
So, it’s time for a reality check. If you are part of a publicly-operated system, where do you stand? The goal for any transit system should be the same: provide the safest, most risk-adverse, form of transportation to the passengers getting on and off the vehicles.

Matthew A. Daecher is president and CEO of Daecher Consulting Group, Inc., Camp Hills, PA.

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Posted by on Oct 16 2011. Filed under Features. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

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