Prepare now for stricter industry oversight
By Matthew A. Daecher
Two stories overshadowed all others in the bus industry in 2011: the implementation and realization of the new Safety Measurement System (SMS) and the resulting consequences and attention a string of unusually severe motorcoach crashes generated.
While there are probably some operators who do not care much for the new SMS, the consensus from a safety viewpoint is this system does what it was intended to do: identify carriers that have issues managing regulatory requirements. How the system interprets certain violations and ranks operators are still contentious areas, but as a whole the new system provides much more information about carriers and their management than the Safestat system it replaced. More information for both regulators and consumers is a good thing.
The unfortunate fatal bus crashes in the first half of the year sharpened regulator and enforcement attention, which had already been at a heightened level for the last several years. Strike forces across the nation and stricter enforcement of violators have resulted in more passenger carrier vehicle inspections and stricter enforcement of violations than the industry has ever seen.
The results of these accidents also re-focused attention on previously introduced legislation aimed at increasing bus safety and provided basis for new legislative offerings as well. Combined with proposed and soon-to-be federal motor carrier safety regulations affecting the commercial vehicle industry, it is fairly easy to guesstimate what the future will hold for carriers in certain areas.
Seat Belts: While three-point belts on new coaches are a given, it is unlikely we will see a retrofit requirement issued for older coaches. Given the life cycle of coaches and the question of economics versus benefit, the optional retrofit of some coaches would simply be too burdensome. However, I would expect standards issued for those who do choose to retrofit their older coaches.
National Registry of Medical Examiners: This would establish a database of examiners qualified to conduct physical examinations on commercial drivers and likely include some type of educational component for the registered examiners. It should be a non-issue for carriers who already use designated examiners and hopefully are comfortable that they are familiar with the certification criteria, guidance and physical demands of the commercial drivers they examine.
Speed Limiting: This proposal is less of a factor for the bus industry than trucking, but nonetheless may become reality if it is included in legislation under consideration. It would require speeds be limited to 65 mph and would likely include all large commercial vehicles.
Drug and Alcohol Test Database: Long overdue, this missing link in driver history evaluation would limit the chances of drivers with past drug or alcohol abuses not apparent on a driving abstract to get hired and work for most legitimate carriers.
Medical Certification and Sleep Apnea: There is growing indication of a revision to the physical qualification criteria, due mainly to fatigued driving issues and the sleep apnea movement. If sleep apnea screening is mandatory at prescribed body mass indexes, carriers will need to determine if they are willing to pay for such screening for potential hires and even current drivers. It would be wise for operators to begin now investigating options and costs for screening. This will help reduce occupational clinics from potentially benefiting unscrupulously from the need-for-screening diagnosis. Any apnea screening should take place independently of a company’s physical examination provider. Since the opportunity to change the physical qualification criteria is not often presented, it is entirely possible and warranted that FMCSA may review and change other areas of the qualification criteria as well.
Safety Fitness Determination: The continued implementation of the CSA program will include a rule allowing the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration to change carrier safety fitness ratings based primarily on a carrier’s SMS data. While we can expect plenty of challenges to this rulemaking, if it does pass carriers would be susceptible to frequent, perhaps monthly, evaluations of their safety fitness rather than only during routine compliance reviews. How do operators prepare for this eventual reality? Make sure processes and procedures to manage regulatory compliance are effective in maintaining BASIC scores below thresholds. Aiming for rankings below the 50th percentile should keep a carrier in good shape.
While there has been non-stop action on hours of service rulemakings for property carriers for some time, there has been little mention of hours of service changes in passenger carrier circles. Currently, a new hours-of-service rule for trucking is being published. While it barely mentions passenger carriers, those in the bus industry should not turn a blind eye to this issue. I believe the intent is to adjust passenger carrier hours of service, and once the trucking side is settled, or at least in a new round of litigation, we will see hours of service changes for passenger carriers introduced. FMCSA is simply giving too much attention to the subject to think otherwise. If and when it does introduce new rules, those who have been ahead of the curve in planning will suffer the least pain. All carriers get calls for trips that just don’t seem right; trips they should not allow. If your operation is growing more dependent on these questionable types of trips it is definitely time to think about diversifying.
Electronic Hours of Service Recorders (AOBRDs): This highly sought technology by enforcement is on its way to reality through one of two methods: rulemaking or congressional action. In fact, it was recently included in highway funding legislation under consideration. It is widely accepted in trucking circles, and whichever way it becomes required, passenger carriers can expect to be included.
While we have yet to see the real benefit of this technology from the perspective of roadside enforcement, it will prevent anyone from fudging handwritten logs. Most current AOBRD systems are manually adjustable, which makes any non-adjustable data such as GPS locations key to their effectiveness.
What should you be doing now? Talk with your vendors of the current technology-based systems on your vehicles to see if they plan to integrate AOBRDs into their systems. Most will. If you have contracts coming due for renewal, evaluate systems from other vendors. Make sure any agreements guarantee their AOBRD system will meet all future guidance regarding enforcement interfaces without incurring additional costs.
Driver Training: An entry-level driver training regulation has been on the books since 2004 that requires training for all commercial drivers with less than one year driving experience prior to July 2004. This regulation was subject to litigation largely based on its required topics, or more correctly, the lack of, and has been routinely ignored and not enforced. A proposal in 2007 to modify the training requirements was unsuccessful. The FMCSA will announce another attempt next year. This is not a bad idea and it will require a more robust training program.
This leaves carriers in two scenarios: hire only those experienced drivers who can demonstrate they have met the training requirements, or provide the training themselves to inexperienced drivers or those who lack the proper documentation. To simplify compliance most carriers will want to provide the training themselves. This means that if you do not have an in-house driver training program, you may want to start thinking about developing one or establishing a relationship with a training school or program which is likely to be able to meet any proposed requirements. BR
Matthew A. Daecher is president and CEO of Daecher Consulting Group, Inc., Camp Hills, PA