FMCSA’s Lack of Reliable Data Leads to Uncertainty in Motor Carrier Safety
Shipping freight via tractor-trailers has been and continues to be an integral part of supply chains all around the world. With the recent difficulties brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, Americans have never relied more on the trucking industry to be efficient and robust. In order to do this, many state governments in coordination with the federal government have created incentives and subsidies to get more available truckers in the market. These programs have worked, almost too well. Contrary to popular belief, these programs have created a surplus of CDL carrying drivers that have started to experience difficulties finding trucks and jobs. Because of this surplus, the draw of high wages and good working conditions has given way to a “lowest bidder” mentality in the industry. Truckers are seeing their wages drop since there is almost always another driver willing to ship freight at a cheaper cost. Also, drivers are facing more pressure than ever by motor carriers to have their freight shipped on time, causing some drivers to take shortcuts that disregard government regulations and requirements for driving times. Coercion complaints2 submitted by drivers to the FMCSA in 2022 are on pace to double the next highest year that was 2019. Another side effect is the turnover rate at motor carrier companies. According to a TIME Magazine article, turnover rates at motor carriers valued at $30 million or more are as high as 92%, causing these companies to have to quickly train new drivers. This training is often inadequate and done by other inexperienced drivers. Interested citizens are being drawn into trucking due to government subsidies and incentives, only to realize the market is flooded with drivers just like them. As is the case with most large industries, efficiency and growth can, if not properly regulated, can come at the cost of safety.
The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) has the vital task of ensuring that the trucks that fill our roads and deliver our goods every day are operating. This requires an immense amount of data collection and analysis to ensure that the over 300 billion miles1 that are driven each year are done so by safe and compliant carriers and drivers. The task at hand is extensive, but necessary to keep American roadways safe. However, the FMCSA has fallen short of their responsibilities in this regard. Vehicle accidents involving tractor-trailers have seen a rise of 5.3% from 2016-2018 and fatalities in those accidents have seen a rise of 11% from 2013-2018.
The USDOT Office of Inspector General (OIG) in conjuncture with the National Academy of Science (NAS) conducted an audit of the FMCSA from October 2018 to July 2019 to assess the programs in place to flag, inspect, and assess potentially dangerous motor carriers. The audit showed that there is a serious lack of both data, and the implementation of that data to properly conduct investigations and remove unsafe carriers and drivers from the road. According to the audit, “the current exposure data are missing with high frequency, and what are collected is likely of unsatisfactory quality.” The NAS made recommendations regarding using the correct data which could properly distinguish between carriers with non-dangerous violations, and those that need to be removed from the roads. In response to the NAS recommendation the FMCSA “determined that much of the data to be collected does not exist.” In fact, the OIG in 2013 found that roughly 401,000 of the approximately 803,000 registered carriers in the FMCSA system had complete registration files in accordance with regulatory requirements3. At the most basic level of carrier and driver safety assessment the FMCSA system was inadequate. This lack of data is in part due to the FMCSA’s inadequate Compliance, Safety, and Accountability (CSA) program and in part due to industry pushback from the major carriers that lobby for their interests in Washington. At the most basic level of carrier and driver safety assessment the FMCSA system was found to be inadequate. Another flaw found by the audit was that data collection for smaller carriers with less than five drivers or five trucks has been even less thorough. This issue is becoming more pressing as many of the truckers entering the market are shifting from work at larger carrier corporations to these smaller carriers for the personal benefit and potential wage increase.
Due to the recent and extensive strain put on the shipping industry, the response has been to overhaul the system and provide drivers for every freight that needs to be moved. However, this shift requires that the oversight and regulatory actions taken be as large and efficient as the industry itself. Unfortunately, according to recent data and government audits into the FMCSA, it is apparent that there are serious deficiencies that allow for unsafe drivers to be on the roads every day.
The breakdown in the FMCSA system has led to rises in both crashes and fatalities, as well as poor working conditions for the many safe and responsible truckers that have answered the call and done their best to continue to deliver for the American people.
1 300 billion miles based on estimates by the American Trucking Association for 2019.
2 According to the FMCSA, coercion occurs when a motor carrier, shipper, receiver, or transportation intermediary “threatens to withhold work from, take employment actions against, or punish a driver for refusing to operate in violation of certain provisions of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations (FMCSRs), Hazardous Materials Regulations (HMRs), and the Federal Motor Carrier Commercial Regulations (FMCCRs).
3 Since this discovery, the FMCSA has taken steps to rectify the problem, and the OIG officially considers the matter resolved.