oversight

Truck Safety: Motor Carriers Office Hampered by Limited Information on Causes of Crashes and Other Data Problems

Published by the Government Accountability Office on 1999-06-29.

Below is a raw (and likely hideous) rendition of the original report. (PDF)

                  United States General Accounting Office

GAO               Report to the Subcommittee on
                  Transportation and Related Agencies,
                  Committee on Appropriations, House of
                  Representatives

June 1999
                  TRUCK SAFETY

                  Motor Carriers Office
                  Hampered by Limited
                  Information on Causes
                  of Crashes and Other
                  Data Problems




GAO/RCED-99-182
United States General Accounting Office                                               Resources, Community, and
Washington, D.C. 20548                                                            Economic Development Division



                                    B-281646                                                                       Letter

                                    June 29, 1999

                                    The Honorable Frank R. Wolf
                                    Chairman, Subcommittee on Transportation
                                    and Related Agencies
                                    Committee on Appropriations
                                    House of Representatives

                                    Dear Mr. Chairman:

                                    Because of your concern about the increasing numbers of fatalities from
                                    crashes involving large commercial trucks (those trucks with a gross
                                    weight of at least 10,001 pounds), you asked us to examine the
                                    effectiveness of the Federal Highway Administration’s Office of Motor
                                    Carrier and Highway Safety in improving the safety of large trucks.
                                    Specifically, we examined (1) recent trends in the number of crashes
                                    involving large trucks, (2) the factors that contribute to such crashes, and
                                    (3) the Office of Motor Carrier and Highway Safety’s activities to improve
                                    truck safety.



Results in Brief                    Of the more than 42,000 people who died on our nation’s highways in 1997
                                    (the latest year for which data are available), about 5,400 died in crashes
                                    involving large trucks. This figure represents a 21-percent increase from
                                    1992, reversing a trend of decreasing truck fatalities from 1988 through
                                    1992. In addition, from 1992 through 1997, the fatality rate—the number of
                                    fatalities per 100 million miles traveled by large trucks—has remained
                                    fairly constant at about 2.9 deaths per 100 million miles traveled after
                                    decreasing by 27 percent between 1988 and 1992. The recent increases in
                                    fatalities reflect, in part, a 25-percent increase in the annual number of
                                    miles traveled by large trucks since 1992. If this trend of increasing truck
                                    travel continues, the number of fatalities could increase to more than 5,800
                                    in 1999. This estimated figure is substantially higher than the goal that the
                                    Federal Highway Administration established for 1999 of reducing fatalities
                                    from truck crashes to below the 1996 level of 5,142. While trucks are
                                    involved in fewer crashes per mile traveled than passenger vehicles,
                                    crashes involving trucks are more likely to result in fatalities. In 1997, 98
                                    percent of the fatalities from crashes between a truck and a passenger
                                    vehicle were occupants of the passenger vehicle.




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        While no reliable nationwide data exist on the causes of crashes involving
        large trucks, some data exist on the extent to which factors such as drivers’
        behavior, vehicles’ mechanical condition, the roadway, and the
        environment may contribute to these crashes. These data indicate that
        passenger vehicle drivers’ behavior is a significant contributing factor to
        crashes. For example, in 1997, contributing factors related to passenger
        vehicle drivers were reported in 80 percent of crashes involving both trucks
        and passenger vehicles (these data are based only on fatal truck crashes
        and are not the result of thorough investigations of crash scenes). To better
        tailor its activities to address the factors that are most likely to contribute
        to truck crashes, the Office of Motor Carrier and Highway Safety plans to
        design and fund a study to obtain more detailed information on such
        factors. Because the factors that contribute to crashes do not vary
        significantly from year to year, the results of the study are estimated to be
        relevant for about 15 years.

        The Office of Motor Carrier and Highway Safety has undertaken a number
        of activities and plans to undertake others to improve truck safety. These
        actions include identifying high-risk carriers that should receive reviews of
        their compliance with safety regulations, educating passenger vehicle
        drivers about how to share the road with large trucks, and developing
        technology to alert truck drivers of the onset of drowsiness. While these
        activities address what are currently considered to be significant
        contributing factors to truck crashes, the Office of Motor Carrier and
        Highway Safety’s effectiveness is limited by (1) long-standing data
        problems, (2) the length of time it takes to complete activities, and (3) the
        unknown effect of its campaign to educate passenger vehicle drivers about
        the limitations of large trucks. For example, the Office of Motor Carrier
        and Highway Safety’s effort to identify high-risk carriers for safety
        improvements depends in part on having reasonably complete data on the
        number of crashes experienced by carriers. However, states did not report
        an estimated 38 percent of all crashes and 30 percent of the fatal crashes
        involving large trucks that should have been reported to the Office of Motor
        Carrier and Highway Safety in 1997. The Office has developed a draft safety
        action plan that describes 67 activities that it believes have the greatest
        potential to reduce crashes and save lives. However, the results of these
        activities will not be evident for several years. In addition, the draft plan
        does not address whether the Department of Transportation has the
        resources needed to complete all of the activities, nor does it prioritize the
        67 activities according to their potential to improve truck safety.




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Background   The Department of Transportation (DOT) has stated that safety has always
             been the agency’s most important strategic goal. The Office of Motor
             Carrier and Highway Safety (OMCHS), within DOT’s Federal Highway
             Administration (FHWA), is responsible for, among other things, the portion
             of this goal related to the safety of interstate commercial motor vehicles.
             Under federal motor carrier safety regulations, an interstate commercial
             motor vehicle is one that is used to transport passengers or property
             between states and (1) has a gross vehicle weight rating or gross vehicle
             weight of at least 10,001 pounds, (2) is designed to transport more than 15
             passengers, or (3) is used to transport hazardous materials that require the
             vehicle to be placarded.

             OMCHS’ activities include (1) issuing, administering, and enforcing federal
             motor carrier safety regulations and hazardous materials regulations; (2)
             gathering and analyzing data on motor carriers, drivers, and vehicles; (3)
             developing information systems to improve the transfer of data; and (4)
             researching new methods and technologies to enhance motor carrier
             safety. OMCHS conducts many of these activities in conjunction with other
             federal agencies and states. For example, OMCHS provides grants to states
             through the Motor Carrier Safety Assistance Program to support statewide
             commercial motor vehicle safety programs. For fiscal year 1999, federal
             funding for OMCHS totaled about $160 million, $90 million of which was
             for the Motor Carrier Safety Assistance Program.

             The number of interstate commercial motor carriers has grown rapidly
             during the past decade. According to OMCHS’ census of motor carriers,
             the number grew from 190,000 in 1989 to about 490,000 as of March 1999,
             about a 160-percent increase. Most of these carriers are small businesses—
             about 70 percent of the carriers operate six or fewer trucks, while less than
             1 percent operate more than 1,000 trucks. The number of vehicle miles
             traveled annually by large trucks increased from 148 billion miles in 1989 to
             191 billion in 1997.




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Fatalities From Large   The annual number of fatalities from crashes involving large trucks
                        increased by 21 percent from 4,462 in 1992 to 5,398 in 1997 (see fig. 1). This
Truck Crashes Are       result reversed a trend of decreasing truck fatalities in the previous 5-year
Increasing, While       period, 1988 through 1992. Also from 1992 through 1997, the fatality rate—
                        the number of fatalities per 100 million miles traveled by large trucks—has
Fatalities per Mile     remained fairly constant at about 2.9 deaths per 100 million miles traveled
Traveled Have Leveled   after decreasing by 27 percent between 1988 and 1992.
Off

                        Figure 1: Fatalities From Large Truck Crashes and Fatality Rate, 1988-97
                        7,000                                                                                                   7

                        6,000      Fatalities                                                                                   6

                        5,000                                                                                                   5

                        4,000                                                                                                   4

                        3,000                                                                                                   3

                        2,000                                                                        Fatality rate              2
                                                                        (per 100 million truck miles traveled)
                        1,000                                                                                                   1

                             0                                                                                                  0
                              1988      1989      1990      1991      1992      1993      1994      1995      1996      1997

                        Source: DOT.


                        While many factors may have contributed to the recent increases in annual
                        fatalities, the upward trend in the number of fatalities reflects, in part,
                        increases in large truck and passenger vehicle travel.1 The number of miles
                        traveled by large trucks increased by 25 percent from 1992 through 1997,
                        while the number of miles traveled by passenger vehicles increased by 13
                        percent. If truck travel continues to increase at this rate, and nothing is
                        done to reduce the fatality rate, the annual number of fatalities could
                        exceed 5,800 in 1999 and 6,000 in 2000 (see fig. 2). FHWA has established a


                        1
                         Passenger vehicles include cars, pickup trucks, sport utility vehicles, and vans under 10,001 pounds
                        (gross vehicle weight rating).




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goal for OMCHS for 1999 to reduce the number of fatalities from truck
crashes to fewer than 5,142—the number of fatalities in 1996. 2 This goal is
substantially below our projected figure of 5,847 for 1999.



Figure 2: Actual and Projected Fatalities From Large Truck Crashes, 1988-2000
Fatalities




                                                      OMCHS’ 1999 goal




Sources: DOT for 1988 through 1997; GAO’s estimate for 1998 through 2000.


While the recent increase in the number of fatalities from crashes involving
large trucks is a concern, only about 1 percent of all truck crashes reported
to police in 1997 resulted in a fatality. About 99 percent resulted in injuries
or property damage only. The number of people injured in truck crashes in
1997 (133,000) was not significantly different from the number injured in
1988 (130,000). However, from 1988 through 1997, the number of injuries
per 100 million miles traveled fell from 92 to 69. In addition, the annual
number of crashes involving large trucks that resulted in property damage
only increased from 291,000 to 329,000, while the number of these crashes
per 100 million miles traveled decreased from 206 to 172.


2
 On May 25, 1999, DOT announced a long-range goal of reducing fatalities from crashes involving
commercial vehicles, including large trucks, by 50 percent over 10 years. In the near future, DOT will
develop a strategy for achieving this goal and will include all affected parties in its deliberations.




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In addition, for each mile that they traveled from 1988 through 1997, large
trucks were involved in fewer total crashes than passenger vehicles were.
However, large trucks were involved in a greater number of fatal crashes
per mile traveled (see fig. 3). The higher fatal crash rate for large trucks is
not surprising, considering the difference in weight between passenger
vehicles and large trucks. When there is such a mismatch in weight
between the vehicles involved in a crash, the lighter one and its occupants
tend to suffer more damage. In fatal crashes between a passenger vehicle
and a large truck in 1997, 98 percent of the fatalities were occupants of the
passenger vehicle.



Figure 3: Comparison of Fatal Crash Rates for Large Trucks and for Passenger
Vehicles, 1988-97

Fatal crash rate
(per 100 million vehicle miles traveled)




Note: Rates for both categories include crashes between trucks and passenger vehicles.
Source: DOT.




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OMCHS Needs Better           Current information, while limited, indicates that passenger vehicle drivers’
                             behavior is a significant contributing factor to crashes. OMCHS plans to
Information on Factors       design and fund a study to obtain more detailed information on the factors
That Contribute to           that are most likely to contribute to truck crashes, and some states are
                             beginning to conduct more in-depth investigations of truck crashes to
Crashes Involving            determine these factors.
Large Trucks

Current Information Points   While no reliable information exists on the causes of crashes involving
to Passenger Vehicle         large trucks nationwide, some information exists on factors that may
                             contribute to these crashes.3 These factors include (1) factors involving
Drivers’ Behavior as a       drivers, such as excessive speed, fatigue, inattentiveness, and reckless
Significant Contributing     driving; (2) factors related to vehicles’ condition, such as worn brakes, bald
Factor to Truck Crashes      tires, and improperly secured loads; (3) factors related to the road, such as
                             the type of road and its design; and (4) environmental factors, such as bad
                             weather and darkness.4 However, OMCHS does not know how many
                             crashes are related to each of these factors because existing databases do
                             not contain sufficiently complete information on contributing factors.
                             Without this information, OMCHS cannot effectively tailor its activities to
                             address the factors that are most likely to contribute to truck crashes.

                             One national database contains information on factors that contribute to
                             truck crashes: the Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS), maintained
                             by DOT’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). Based
                             on many sources of data, including reports prepared by police officers at
                             crash scenes, FARS is considered a reliable source of information on all
                             fatal motor vehicle crashes. However, fatal truck crashes represent only 1
                             percent of all truck crashes. Furthermore, FARS does not rely on a
                             thorough investigation of crash scenes to pinpoint factors that contribute
                             most heavily.

                             Despite its limitations, FARS has been used to estimate the number of fatal
                             crashes related to certain factors. Data from FARS indicate that factors
                             related to passenger vehicle drivers contribute to more fatal crashes

                             3
                              A contributing factor does not necessarily identify fault or the cause of a crash; rather, the presence of
                             a contributing factor increases the likelihood of a crash.
                             4
                              In addition, characteristics of truck companies (such as the form of ownership and company size),
                             drivers’ characteristics (such as age, training, and experience), and types of cargo (such as liquids) may
                             be related to crash rates.




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between a passenger vehicle and a truck than do factors related to truck
drivers. In 1997, factors related to passenger vehicle drivers were reported
in 80 percent of the crashes, while factors related to truck drivers were
reported in 28 percent of the crashes. Safety groups have questioned the
validity of these data because truck drivers, who are more likely to survive
the crash than passenger vehicle drivers, have more opportunities to tell
the officer at the crash scene their version of how the crash occurred.
However, a recent study found that in fatal crashes in 1994 and 1995 in
which both the truck driver and the passenger vehicle driver survived,
factors related to passenger vehicle drivers were cited in 74 percent of the
crashes compared with 35 percent for factors related to truck drivers.5
This finding provides some support for the hypothesis that, compared with
truck drivers, passenger vehicle drivers contribute more to fatal crashes
between large trucks and passenger vehicles.

On the basis of data from FARS and several studies involving in-depth crash
investigations, OMCHS estimates that another driver-related factor—-truck
drivers’ fatigue—contributes to 15 to 33 percent of the crashes that are fatal
to the truck occupant(s) only.6 (From 1992 through 1997, about 14 percent
of all fatal truck crashes were fatal to the truck occupant(s) only.) OMCHS
estimates that truck drivers’ fatigue contributes to a much lower
percentage—from 1 to 2 percent—of the crashes that are fatal to people
other than truck occupants, such as passenger vehicle occupants or
pedestrians. The imprecision of these estimates partly reflects the
difficulty of detecting drivers’ fatigue after crashes occur. Despite this
difficulty, fatigue was identified as the number one issue affecting the
safety of motor carriers during a 1995 meeting on safety attended by
representatives from government, trucking associations, and safety interest
groups.

Some information also exists on the extent to which other major factors—
vehicles, the road, and the environment—contribute to truck crashes.
First, according to estimates in several studies, the percentage of truck
crashes that are attributed to vehicles’ mechanical failure ranges from 5 to
13 percent but could be up to 20 percent for crashes in which the truck


5
 Daniel Blower, The Relative Contribution of Truck Drivers and Passenger Vehicle Drivers to
Truck-Passenger Vehicle Traffic Crashes, The University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute,
Ann Arbor, Mich. (1998).
6
  Crash Problem Size Assessment Update: Large Truck Crashes Related Primarily to Driver Fatigue,
Office of Motor Carrier and Highway Safety (Jan. 1999).




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                              driver is found at fault. Second, noninterstate roads have more crashes per
                              mile traveled than interstate highways because the latter are designed with
                              more safety features such as median barriers and controlled access.
                              Approximately 76 percent of the fatalities in fatal crashes involving large
                              trucks occurred on noninterstate roads in 1997, compared to 59 percent of
                              all truck miles of travel on these roads. Finally, environmental factors—
                              such as snow or darkness—can contribute to crashes.


OMCHS Is Initiating an        Because of the lack of sufficiently complete and precise information on
Effort to Improve             factors that contribute to crashes, OMCHS recently began to design a
                              database that contains more detailed information on these factors.
Information on Factors That   OMCHS plans to provide funding to NHTSA to collect data on a national
Contribute to Truck Crashes   sample of crashes involving large trucks, including crashes resulting in
                              fatalities, injuries, and serious property damage only. OMCHS estimates
                              that the database would take 2 to 3 years to complete, at a cost of $2 million
                              to $3 million. The American Automobile Association (AAA) recently
                              proposed a separate, but similar, study to be designed by the
                              Transportation Research Board.7 AAA believes that its approach allows the
                              widest possible input from the traffic safety and trucking communities,
                              while providing scientific objectivity and technical expertise. As in
                              OMCHS’ study, AAA is proposing that NHTSA conduct the crash
                              investigations and collect the data. AAA estimates that the study would
                              take from 3 to 5 years, at a cost of about $5 million. According to OMCHS
                              officials, the agency has begun work on its study and may modify its
                              original plans by including input from other groups, such as research
                              groups, during the design phase. Because the factors that contribute to
                              crashes do not vary significantly from year to year, the results of the study
                              are estimated to be relevant for about 15 years.

                              Some states are also beginning to examine more closely the factors that
                              contribute to truck crashes. In fiscal year 1998, every state submitted an
                              annual commercial vehicle safety plan to OMCHS that included the state’s
                              goals for improving truck safety and the activities the state will use to meet
                              those goals. Several states plan to conduct in-depth crash investigations to
                              determine the prevalence of different contributing factors. OMCHS
                              developed a common format for conducting these investigations and is
                              encouraging the states to use this format so that the data collected by


                              7
                               Part of the National Research Council, the Transportation Research Board is a private nonprofit
                              institution that conducts research addressing all modes and aspects of transportation.




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                             various states will be compatible. Michigan is currently the only state
                             known by OMCHS to be implementing this format. In addition, OMCHS has
                             developed a training course on investigating large truck crashes, which will
                             be available to state police officers. The data collected by the police
                             officers will be reported to OMCHS.



OMCHS’ Effectiveness         OMCHS has undertaken or plans to undertake activities intended to
                             improve truck safety, such as identifying high-risk trucking companies for
Is Hampered by Data          reviews of their compliance with safety regulations, educating passenger
Problems and the Time        vehicle drivers about how to share the road with large trucks, and
                             conducting research on methods to alert truck drivers when they are
Needed to Complete           becoming fatigued. While these activities—undertaken either directly or
Activities                   through grants provided to states—address what are currently considered
                             to be significant factors contributing to truck crashes, many other factors
                             affect the level of truck safety. 8 However, OMCHS’ effectiveness is limited
                             by (1) long-standing problems with the data it uses to identify high-risk
                             carriers; (2) the length of time to complete activities, including rulemaking;
                             and (3) the unknown effect of OMCHS’ campaign to educate passenger
                             vehicle drivers about the limitations of large trucks. OMCHS has
                             developed a draft safety action plan that includes these and many other
                             activities to improve truck safety, but it has not determined whether it has
                             the resources required to complete them all nor which activities have the
                             greatest potential for improving truck safety.


Insufficient Data Limit      Each year, OMCHS and state inspectors conduct thousands of on-site
OMCHS’ Ability to Target     reviews of motor carriers’ compliance with federal safety regulations,
                             known as compliance reviews. To identify high-risk carriers for these
High-Risk Carriers and       reviews, OMCHS uses a “safety status” measurement system known as
States’ Ability to Develop   SafeStat. SafeStat relies heavily on data from OMCHS’ management
and Implement Safety Plans   information system to rank motor carriers on the basis of four factors: (1)
                             crashes, (2) drivers’ performance, (3) vehicles’ mechanical condition, and
                             (4) safety management. The first factor is given twice the weight of the
                             other factors because carriers that have been in crashes are considered
                             more likely to be involved in crashes in the future. Carriers that are ranked



                             8
                              Other factors that affect truck safety that OMCHS does not directly influence include highway design
                             standards, passenger vehicles’ handling and crashworthiness characteristics, traffic congestion, local
                             traffic laws and enforcement, and state initiatives.




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in the worst 25 percent of all carriers for three or more factors or for the
first factor plus one other factor are targeted for a compliance review.

However, SafeStat’s ability to accurately target high-risk carriers is limited
because state officials do not report a large percentage of crashes involving
large trucks to OMCHS’ information system. For 1997, OMCHS estimated
that states did not report about 38 percent of all reportable crashes and 30
percent of the fatal crashes involving large trucks.9 Furthermore, 10 states
reported fewer than 50 percent of the fatal crashes occurring within their
borders, including 4 states that reported fewer than 10 percent. Because
OMCHS does not receive information on a large percentage of crashes,
carriers that have been involved in a substantial number of crashes may go
undetected by SafeStat. According to OMCHS officials, states do not report
all crashes in part because (1) some states have no legislative requirement
for police departments to submit reports on crashes to state officials, (2)
state agencies in charge of collecting the data for OMCHS must rely on
numerous local jurisdictions and other agencies to provide the data, and
(3) state employees who submit crash data to OMCHS may not have
sufficient training or incentives to report data completely and in a timely
manner.

According to OMCHS officials, providing training to employees and
financial incentives to states to report crashes should improve crash
reporting, as was the case for Mississippi. The state reported only 1 of 99
fatal crashes involving large trucks that occurred within its borders in 1997.
According to OMCHS officials, the state used one-time incentive funds
from OMCHS to hire two employees in 1998 dedicated to collecting data on
truck crashes and reporting these data to OMCHS. This resulted in
increased reporting. From September 1998 through March 1999,
Mississippi reported 1,657 crashes involving large trucks to OMCHS. In
comparison, from September 1997 through March 1998, the state reported
46 crashes. NHTSA spends about $5 million annually for FARS to (1)
provide funds to all states to collect, interpret, and enter data into the
database; (2) maintain the database; and (3) train field staff to ensure
consistent coding and interpretation. The cost for OMCHS to set up a
similar system could be greater because the Office would need to collect
data on a greater number of crashes. For example, in 1997 there were an



9
 For OMCHS’ purposes, a reportable crash must result in a fatality, an injury for which the person is
taken to a medical facility, or the towing of one vehicle from the scene.




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estimated 150,000 truck crashes that should have been reported to OMCHS,
compared with about 37,000 fatal crashes reported to NHTSA.

SafeStat’s ability to target high-risk carriers is also limited by out-of-date
census data. SafeStat uses these census data—such as the number of
trucks operated or vehicle miles traveled by each carrier—to normalize
safety data. For example, SafeStat checks the number of crashes reported
for a carrier against the number of trucks operated by the carrier to
determine if the number of crashes is disproportionately high. However, in
the majority of states, interstate carriers are required to file census data
with OMCHS only once—when they initially go into business. After that,
the census data are updated generally only when OMCHS or states conduct
compliance reviews at the carriers’ facilities. Each year from 1993 through
1997, these reviews were conducted for fewer than 4 percent of the carriers
known to OMCHS, whose numbers increased from 275,000 to more than
415,000 over the period.

Concern over the quality of OMCHS’ data is not new. In 1991 and 1997, we
reported that DOT needed to improve the quality of its data to improve its
data analysis capabilities.10 The ICC Termination Act of 1995 required DOT
to create an information system to consolidate information on motor
carriers, such as census data and insurance and tax information, which
carriers will be required to update every year. However, this information
system is not expected to be operational until late in 2001.

As we reported in 1997, states have improved the timeliness of reporting
the results of the roadside inspections, compliance reviews, and crashes
that are used by SafeStat. However, states are still not meeting OMCHS’
reporting deadlines. OMCHS’ December 1996 guidance to states requires
that they report the results of roadside inspections and compliance reviews
within 21 days and crashes within 90 days. As shown in table 1, states
improved the timeliness of reporting data to OMCHS from fiscal year 1997
to fiscal year 1998 but were missing the Office’s deadlines by an average of
8 to 16 days. Overall, 38 states exceeded OMCHS’ deadline for reporting
inspections, 25 states exceeded the deadline for reporting compliance
reviews, and 21 states exceeded the deadline for reporting crashes in 1998.
To improve timeliness, OMCHS began distributing monthly reports to



10
 Freight Trucking: Promising Approach for Predicting Carriers’ Safety Risks (GAO/PEMD-91-13, Apr. 4,
1991) and Commercial Motor Carriers: DOT Is Shifting to Performance-Based Standards to Assess
Whether Carriers Operate Safely (GAO/RCED-98-8, Nov. 3, 1997).




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                                        states in 1997 and issued a notice of proposed rulemaking on March 9, 1999,
                                        to modify the formula used to distribute grants to states to include
                                        incentives for, among other things, reporting on time.



Table 1: Average Number of Days to Report Results of Roadside Inspections, Compliance Reviews, and Crashes to OMCHS,
Fiscal Years 1996-98


                                                                                                                  Difference between
                                                                                           Reporting       1998 average and reporting
                               Average number of days to report to OMCHS                    deadline                         deadline
                                        1996              1997                1998
Roadside inspections                       49                47                  37                   21                          16
Compliance reviews                         35                41                  29                   21                           8
Crashes                                   195               120                 102                   90                          12
                                        Note: The reporting deadline was established during fiscal year 1997.
                                        Source: GAO’s analysis of OMCHS’ data.


                                        Data problems also exist at the state level. In fiscal year 1998, all states
                                        submitted performance-based safety plans to OMCHS for the first time.
                                        Under these plans, states must identify areas that need improvement, such
                                        as sections of highways where a disproportionate number of crashes
                                        involving large trucks have occurred, and develop a plan for improving
                                        those areas. In a pilot program to implement performance-based plans, 5 of
                                        13 pilot states reported that they lacked sufficient or timely data to
                                        accurately identify areas that need improvement. Furthermore, according
                                        to OMCHS officials, insufficient data—on such things as the number of
                                        trucks a carrier operates to help states focus their safety education
                                        programs for carriers—have also been a problem for some states once they
                                        have identified problem areas and are developing improvement plans. To
                                        assist states in improving their data, OMCHS distributed a list of data
                                        sources to them.


Some Important Activities               While OMCHS’ activities have the potential to improve large truck safety, it
to Improve Large Truck                  will be several years before the results of some important activities are
                                        seen. For example, OMCHS is conducting research on truck drivers’
Safety Are Years From                   drowsiness, including research on a device that would detect drowsiness
Completion                              by measuring a truck driver’s degree of eye closure. However, this device is
                                        not likely to be operational for several years. Similarly, following a study
                                        conducted in 1988 and updated in 1997, which found that new motor



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carriers have lower rates of compliance with federal motor carrier
regulations, OMCHS plans to create a pilot program to ensure the safety
fitness of these carriers. While the pilot program is expected to be
completed by 2003, it will not be expanded to all states until several years
later, assuming it is successful.

OMCHS is also currently implementing the Performance and Registration
Information Systems Management (PRISM) Program to link safety
information on motor carriers to state-level motor vehicle registration and
licensing systems. The Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act
of 1991 required a pilot for this program, and the Transportation Equity Act
for the 21st Century in 1998 expanded the program. PRISM is intended to
(1) determine the safety fitness of individual motor carriers during the
registration process and deny registration to any carrier that is under an
“operations out of service order” from OMCHS 11 and (2) identify high-risk
carriers (via SafeStat) to be placed in a performance-based improvement
process that begins with a warning letter and could result in eventual
revocation of vehicle registration privileges. According to an OMCHS
official, this program was implemented as a pilot program in five states
from 1995 through 1997 and has since been implemented in six additional
states. At a projected implementation rate of about four new states per
year, the program will not be available in all states before 2008.

OMCHS is also deploying an information systems architecture—the
Commercial Vehicle Information Systems and Networks (CVISN)—that
will allow dissimilar federal, state, and carrier systems to exchange
information electronically. The Transportation Equity Act for the 21st
Century directed the Secretary of Transportation to deploy CVISN in a
majority of states by September 30, 2003. From 1999 through 2003, OMCHS
plans to pilot test CVISN in 10 states, develop system designs for 30
additional states, and deploy CVISN in at least 16 of those states. OMCHS
plans to complete the deployment of CVISN in all states by 2005.

In March 1999, OMCHS distributed a draft safety action plan for review and
comment by FHWA field offices, the safety community, and the trucking
industry. Of the approximately 200 activities that OMCHS officials estimate
the Office has under way or is undertaking from 1999 through 2003,
including those above, 67 activities are in the plan because the Office


11
 An operations out of service order is issued when a carrier is found to have safety problems so severe
and urgent that its operation must be closed immediately until the problems are corrected.




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                        B-281646




                        considers them important to reducing crashes, injuries, and fatalities. The
                        plan includes OMCHS’ recently initiated effort to evaluate the effectiveness
                        of its major programs to determine their impacts on truck safety, establish
                        goals that will enable the Office to link its activities to improvements in
                        truck safety, and recommend improvements to make the activities more
                        effective. OMCHS intends to finalize the draft plan in July 1999.

                        The draft safety action plan is organized to show where the likely impacts
                        of completed safety initiatives will lie, such as with carriers, drivers, and/or
                        vehicles. However, it does not specify how OMCHS intends to carry out the
                        draft plan or which activities have the greatest potential to reduce the
                        number of crashes and save lives. It also does not address whether
                        OMCHS has the resources, either in terms of funding or staff, to undertake
                        and complete all of these initiatives. Such an assessment is particularly
                        important because the 67 activities represent only about one-third of the
                        activities OMCHS has undertaken or plans to undertake.


FHWA Is Reviewing Its   Safety advocates and trucking industry representatives have criticized
Rulemaking Process to   OMCHS for taking too long to issue safety rules. The rulemaking process in
                        itself takes a certain amount of time due to the need to adhere to various
Improve Timeliness      statutory and administrative requirements. However, the length of OMCHS’
                        rulemaking process may be aggravated, in part, by the complexity and
                        contentiousness of some motor carrier issues and the quality of the rules
                        that OMCHS develops.

                        FHWA officials explained that rules—including those with statutorily
                        mandated deadlines—that are extremely complex or contentious tend to
                        take longer to issue. For example, the ICC Termination Act of 1995
                        required the Secretary of Transportation to consolidate four sources of
                        information on motor carriers, such as the DOT identification number and
                        financial responsibility information systems, into a single information
                        system. This new system is intended to serve as a clearinghouse and
                        depository of information—including information on safety fitness—on all
                        foreign and domestic motor carriers and others required to register with
                        DOT. The act required the Secretary to issue a final rule on this information
                        system by January 1, 1998. OMCHS issued an advance notice of proposed
                        rulemaking in August 1996 and expects to issue a notice of proposed
                        rulemaking by September 1999, followed by a final rule by December
                        2000—nearly 3 years after its directed date. OMCHS estimates that the
                        system will be operational about 1 year after the final rule. In addition to
                        the difficulty of consolidating the various systems, an OMCHS official



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explained that another reason for the delay in the rulemaking is the act’s
provision that states not lose revenue compared to that in 1995 as a result
of replacing the old independent systems with the new consolidated
system.

The ICC Termination Act of 1995 also required FHWA to modify the
existing rule concerning hours of service for drivers of commercial motor
vehicles to incorporate methods for reducing fatigue-related incidents such
as crashes. The act required FHWA to issue an advance notice of proposed
rulemaking by March 1, 1996; this notice was issued on November 5, 1996.
The act also required a proposed rule within 1 year after the advance notice
and a final rule within 2 years after that 1-year deadline. According to
OMCHS, revisions to this rule are difficult and extremely contentious.
Therefore, FHWA is currently considering the use of a “negotiated
rulemaking” process in which a committee—including truck drivers, motor
carriers, and safety advocacy groups—develops the rule. Through this
process, the views of interested parties can be incorporated in the
proposed rule, thereby reducing the number of comments and time needed
to issue the final rule. If FHWA conducts a negotiated rulemaking, it
expects to issue a proposed rule by March 2000; otherwise, it expects to
issue a proposed rule in September 1999.

According to DOT officials involved in all stages of the rulemaking process
(including officials from the Office of the Secretary, FHWA’s Office of the
Chief Counsel, and OMCHS), the length of time OMCHS has taken to issue
rules is also due in part to the inexperience of and insufficient training for
OMCHS staff who develop the rules. FHWA has recognized that more
attention needs to be paid to the development of rules because rules that
are insufficiently analyzed or poorly written require more time in the
review process. In addition, rules that are classified by FHWA as
“significant”—such as rules that will have a significant impact on the public
or state or local governments, that are costly, or that are controversial—
must be reviewed and approved by the Office of the Secretary, while other
rules are approved by the Administrator of FHWA. This difference is
important for OMCHS because about half of its rules in process (29 of 57)
as of April 1999 were classified as significant, therefore requiring additional
review. As part of a DOT-wide effort, FHWA is examining its rulemaking
process to identify ways to streamline the process and has identified
several areas for improvement. FHWA is considering actions such as (1)
preparing guidance on the rulemaking process, (2) providing training for
employees that develop rules, and (3) recommending that DOT revise its




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                            procedures to limit the number of regulatory proposals requiring review by
                            the Office of the Secretary and expediting those that undergo such review.


Effectiveness of OMCHS’     Because factors related to passenger vehicle drivers often contribute to
Campaign to Educate         fatal crashes between large trucks and passenger vehicles, OMCHS
                            launched the “No-Zone” campaign in 1994. This campaign is intended to
Passenger Vehicle Drivers   reduce crashes between large trucks and passenger vehicles by educating
About the Limitations of    passenger vehicle drivers about how to safely share the road with large
Large Trucks Is Unknown     trucks and about trucks’ limitations, such as reduced maneuverability,
                            longer stopping distances, and blind spots (the No Zone). The campaign’s
                            public education efforts include public service announcements via radio,
                            television, and print; brochures; posters; and decals on large trucks.

                            According to OMCHS and NHTSA officials, the success of this type of
                            educational campaign depends, in part, on maintaining a consistently high
                            level of public exposure to convey the message. The Transportation Equity
                            Act for the 21st Century directed the Secretary of Transportation to
                            obligate $500,000 in fiscal years 1998 through 2003 for this type of effort out
                            of funds made available for certain activities carried out by NHTSA.
                            However, according to OMCHS and NHTSA officials, the No-Zone
                            campaign did not receive these funds in fiscal year 1998 because the funds
                            for these activities had already been committed by the time the act was
                            passed in June 1998. While OMCHS had sufficient funds to maintain the
                            No-Zone campaign activities throughout fiscal year 1998, it was not able to
                            develop new advertisements for the 1999 spring through fall travel period.

                            OMCHS has not determined to what extent, if any, the No-Zone campaign
                            has contributed to changing passenger vehicle drivers’ behavior and
                            reducing crashes between large trucks and passenger vehicles. OMCHS
                            has conducted focus groups with high school students and plans to
                            conduct a national telephone survey within the next year to determine the
                            level of public recognition of the No-Zone campaign; however, the survey
                            will not measure whether passenger vehicle drivers’ behavior has changed.
                            OMCHS is also exploring the possibility of developing indicators of
                            changes in passenger vehicle drivers’ behavior by requesting changes to
                            vehicle citation codes to allow police officers to cite drivers for unsafe
                            driving practices—including those in the vicinity of large trucks. For
                            example, an officer could cite a passenger vehicle driver for changing lanes
                            in front of a truck and then braking suddenly.




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Conclusions           The Office of Motor Carrier and Highway Safety has not been effective in
                      reducing fatalities resulting from crashes involving large trucks because,
                      among other things, it knows too little about the causes of crashes or the
                      factors that contribute to them and because it has not corrected
                      long-standing problems with the information it uses, such as information
                      that identifies high-risk carriers. As a result, the Office of Motor Carrier
                      and Highway Safety cannot tell whether it is allocating its efforts in line
                      with the most serious problems it seeks to address.

                      The Office of Motor Carrier and Highway Safety is developing a draft safety
                      action plan that could help it better understand the causes of crashes,
                      improve the information it uses to address safety problems, and lead to
                      safety improvements through other means. The draft plan identifies 67
                      activities that the Office believes are most important for improving truck
                      safety out of an estimated 200 activities that it has under way. While the
                      draft plan is subject to change, the 67 activities represent a significant
                      undertaking, but the Office has not determined which of these activities are
                      most likely to lead to a reduced number of crashes and deaths or whether it
                      can complete all the planned activities in a timely manner with available
                      resources, both budgetary and human.



Recommendation        We recommend to the Secretary of Transportation that the Department
                      prioritize the activities in the Office of Motor Carrier and Highway Safety’s
                      safety action plan according to their potential for reducing the number of
                      crashes and deaths and, to ensure that the activities are completed in a
                      timely manner, only undertake those that the Office is reasonably sure it
                      can complete within available budgetary and human resources.



Agency Comments and   DOT provided comments on a draft of this report. (See app. I.) DOT
                      agreed with the contents of the report, stating that it provided a balanced
Our Evaluation        discussion of areas needing improvement and the agency’s efforts to
                      improve the commercial vehicle safety program. DOT also stated that (1)
                      definitive data are lacking on causes of crashes for all types of motor
                      vehicles, not just trucks, and the Department is working to improve data
                      quality; (2) the Department has recently requested additional funds to
                      improve data collection, enforcement, and technology enhancement
                      programs; and (3) No-Zone campaign information is now provided in 34
                      state drivers’ licensing manuals and evidence from a focus group of high
                      school students indicated that the campaign has had a positive effect on the



                      Page 18           GAO/RCED-99-182 Motor Carriers Office’s Activities to Improve Safety
              B-281646




              students’ driving behavior. Regarding the first comment, we recognize that
              the lack of definitive crash causation data is a problem that relates to all
              motor vehicles; however, until causation data on truck crashes is improved,
              DOT will be hampered in improving truck safety. Regarding the second
              comment, although DOT has requested additional funds to improve several
              of the problems we identified in our report, this request will be considered
              by the Congress along with other budget requests. Depending on available
              resources, DOT may have to find other solutions to improving its programs,
              including prioritizing its activities according to their potential for reducing
              crashes. Finally, while DOT has some indication that the No-Zone
              campaign is reaching a large number of people, it has not yet evaluated the
              effectiveness of the campaign by determining the extent to which drivers’
              behavior has actually changed. DOT did not comment on the
              recommendation in our draft report.



Scope and     To identify trends in crashes involving large trucks, we reviewed data from
              1988 through 1997 (the most recent data available) from NHTSA and
Methodology   FHWA. In estimating the number of fatalities from crashes involving large
              trucks for 1998 through 2000, we (1) assumed that the fatality rate would
              remain at the 1997 level of 2.8 fatalities per 100 million truck miles traveled,
              (2) used the best-fit, least-squares regression trend line for the number of
              truck miles traveled from 1992 through 1997 to project the truck miles
              traveled for 1998 through 2000, and (3) multiplied the projected number of
              truck miles traveled for each year by the fatality rate of 2.8 per 100 million
              miles traveled.

              To determine the factors that contribute to crashes involving large trucks,
              we reviewed data from FARS. We also interviewed officials and reviewed
              documentation from OMCHS, the National Transportation Safety Board,
              AAA, and the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute. To
              examine OMCHS’ activities to improve truck safety, we interviewed
              officials and reviewed documentation from DOT (including OMCHS,
              FHWA, NHTSA, and the Office of General Counsel), the National
              Transportation Safety Board, the Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance,
              American Trucking Associations, the National Private Trucking Council,
              Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, and Public Citizen. We performed
              our work from December 1998 through May 1999 in accordance with
              generally accepted government auditing standards.




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B-281646




We are sending copies of this report to congressional committees and
subcommittees responsible for transportation issues; the Honorable
Rodney E. Slater, Secretary of Transportation; the Honorable Jacob Lew,
Director, Office of Management and Budget; and other interested parties.
We will make copies available to others upon request.

If you or your staff have any questions about this report, please contact me
at (202) 512-3650. Major contributors to this report were Jennifer
Clayborne, David Goldstein, James Ratzenberger, and Sara Vermillion.

Sincerely yours,




Phyllis F. Scheinberg
Associate Director,
Transportation Issues




Page 20            GAO/RCED-99-182 Motor Carriers Office’s Activities to Improve Safety
Page 21   GAO/RCED-99-182 Motor Carriers Office’s Activities to Improve Safety
Appendix I

Comments From the Department of
Transportation                                                                            ApIenxdi




             Page 22   GAO/RCED-99-182 Moter Carriers Office’s Activities to Improve Safety
                   Appendix I
                   Comments From the Department of
                   Transportation




(348140)   Leret   Page 23           GAO/RCED-99-182 Moter Carriers Office’s Activities to Improve Safety
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