oversight

Truck Safety: Effectiveness of Motor Carriers Office Hampered by Data Problems and Slow Progress on Implementing Safety Initiatives

Published by the Government Accountability Office on 1999-03-17.

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

                    United States General Accounting Office

GAO                 Testimony
                    Before the Subcommittee on Ground Transportation,
                    Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure,
                    House of Representatives


For Release
on Delivery
Expected at
                    TRUCK SAFETY
10 a.m. EST
Wednesday
March 17, 1999
                    Effectiveness of Motor
                    Carriers Office Hampered
                    by Data Problems and Slow
                    Progress on Implementing
                    Safety Initiatives
                    Statement of Phyllis F. Scheinberg,
                    Associate Director, Transportation Issues,
                    Resources, Community, and Economic Development
                    Division




GAO/T-RCED-99-122
Mr. Chairman and Members of the Subcommittee:

I am here today to discuss the safety of large commercial trucks on our
nation’s highways. My testimony presents preliminary information based
on our ongoing work to assess the effectiveness of the Federal Highway
Administration’s Office of Motor Carrier and Highway Safety (OMCHS) in
improving the safety of large trucks (those trucks with a gross vehicle
weight of 10,000 pounds or more). Specifically, I will discuss (1) recent
increases in the number of crashes involving large trucks, (2) OMCHS’ need
to better understand the factors that contribute to such crashes, and
(3) OMCHS’ need for better data and quicker action on implementing
improvements to truck safety in order to be more effective.

In summary, of the nearly 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 represents a 20-percent
increase from 1992. At the same time, the annual number of miles traveled
by large trucks increased by 25 percent. If this trend of increasing truck
travel continues, the number of fatalities could increase to 5,800 in 1999.
This figure is substantially more than the goal that the Federal Highway
Administration established for 1999 of reducing fatalities from truck
crashes to below the 1996 level of 5,126. While trucks are involved in fewer
crashes per mile traveled than are cars, crashes involving trucks are more
likely to result in a fatality. In 1997, 98 percent of the fatalities from
crashes between trucks and cars were occupants of the car.

While no reliable nationwide information exists on the causes of crashes
involving large trucks, one existing data base does provide some
indication of the extent to which factors such as driver behavior, vehicle
mechanical condition, the roadway, and the environment contribute to
these crashes. However, the existing data base includes data from only
fatal truck crashes, and does not rely on a thorough investigation of the
crash scene. To better tailor its activities to address the factors that are
most likely to contribute to truck crashes, OMCHS plans to design and fund
the development of a data base that contains more detailed information on
these factors. In addition, several states plan to collect their own data on
contributing factors based on in-depth crash investigations.

While many actions outside OMCHS’ authority influence truck safety, OMCHS
has undertaken a number of activities to improve truck safety, such as
identifying high-risk carriers for safety improvements and educating car
drivers about how to share the road with large trucks. However, the



Page 1                                                     GAO/T-RCED-99-122
                                        effectiveness of these activities is limited by (1) data that are incomplete,
                                        inaccurate, or untimely; (2) the length of time it will take to complete
                                        several activities; and (3) the unknown effect of OMCHS’ campaign to
                                        educate car drivers about the limitations of large trucks. For example,
                                        OMCHS’ effort to identify high-risk carriers for safety improvements
                                        depends in part on having complete data on the number of crashes
                                        experienced by carriers. However, OMCHS estimated that about 38 percent
                                        of all crashes and 30 percent of the fatal crashes involving large trucks
                                        were not reported to OMCHS in 1997.


                                        The annual number of fatalities from crashes involving large trucks
Fatalities From Large                   increased by 20 percent from 4,462 in 1992 to 5,355 in 1997 (see fig. 1).1
Truck Crashes Are                       This result reversed a trend of decreasing truck fatalities in the previous
Increasing, While                       5-year period, 1988 through 1992. Also from 1992 through 1997, the fatality
                                        rate—the number of fatalities per 100 million miles traveled by large
Fatalities Per Mile                     trucks—has remained fairly constant at about 2.9 deaths per 100 million
Traveled Have                           miles traveled after decreasing by 27 percent between 1988 and 1992.
Leveled Off
Figure 1: Fatalities From Large Truck
Crashes and Fatality Rate, 1988-1997




                                        Source: National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and Federal Highway Administration.




                                        1
                                         The number of fatalities is from the Fatality Analysis Reporting System, which is considered a reliable
                                        data source for all fatal crashes, including fatal truck crashes. The reporting system is maintained by
                                        the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.



                                        Page 2                                                                           GAO/T-RCED-99-122
                                       The recent increases in annual fatalities reflect, in part, increases in truck
                                       travel: the number of miles traveled increased by 25 percent from 1992
                                       through 1997. If truck travel continues to increase at this rate, and nothing
                                       is done to reduce the fatality rate, the annual number of fatalities could
                                       increase to 5,800 in 1999 and to more than 6,000 in 2000 (see fig. 2). The
                                       Federal Highway Administration has established a goal for OMCHS for 1999
                                       to reduce the number of fatalities from truck crashes to fewer than
                                       5,126—the number of fatalities in 1996. This goal is substantially below our
                                       projected figure of 5,800 for 1999.


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




                                       Source: National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and Federal Highway Administration for
                                       1988 through 1997; GAO’s estimate for 1998 through 2000.




                                       While we are concerned that the number of fatalities from crashes
                                       involving large trucks could increase in the next few years, 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. From 1988
                                       through 1997, the number of people injured each year increased overall
                                       from 130,000 to 133,000. During the same period, the number of injuries
                                       per 100 million miles traveled fell from 92 to 69. In addition, the annual



                                       Page 3                                                                      GAO/T-RCED-99-122
                                       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.

                                       For each mile that they traveled from 1988 through 1997, large trucks were
                                       involved in fewer total crashes than cars were.2 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 cars 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 cars and large trucks in 1997, 98 percent of the
                                       fatalities were occupants of the car.


Figure 3: Comparison of Fatal Crash
Rates for Large Trucks and for Cars,
1988-1997




                                       Note: Rates for both categories include crashes between trucks and cars. Source: National
                                       Highway Traffic Safety Administration and Federal Highway Administration.




                                       2
                                        For this testimony, car is defined as all passenger vehicles—including cars, pickup trucks, sport utility
                                       vehicles, and vans—under 10,001 pounds gross vehicle weight rating.



                                       Page 4                                                                            GAO/T-RCED-99-122
                      While no reliable information exists on the causes of crashes involving
OMCHS Needs Better    large trucks nationwide, some information exists on factors that may
Information on        contribute to these crashes.3 These factors include (1) driver-related
Factors That          factors such as excessive speed, fatigue, inattentiveness, and reckless
                      driving; (2) vehicle-related factors such as worn brakes, bald tires, and
Contribute to Large   improperly secured loads; (3) road-related factors such as the type of road
Truck Crashes         and how it is designed; and (4) environmental factors, such as bad weather
                      and darkness. However, OMCHS does not know how many crashes are
                      related to each of these factors because existing data bases 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 data base contains information on factors that contribute to
                      truck crashes. This data base is the Fatality Analysis Reporting System
                      (FARS), maintained by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration
                      (NHTSA). However, FARS includes only fatal crashes, which represent only
                      1 percent of all truck crashes. Furthermore, it does not include a
                      comprehensive list of factors nor does it rely on a thorough investigation
                      of the crash scene to pinpoint factors that contributed most heavily to the
                      crash.

                      Despite its limitations, FARS has been used to estimate the number of
                      crashes related to certain factors. Data from FARS indicate that car driver
                      errors contribute to more fatal crashes between cars and trucks than do
                      truck driver errors. In 1997, errors by car drivers were reported in
                      80 percent of the crashes, while errors by 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 car 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 car driver survived, car driver errors were cited in 74 percent of
                      the crashes compared with 35 percent for truck driver errors.4 This finding
                      provides some support for the hypothesis that, compared with truck
                      drivers, car drivers contribute more to fatal crashes between large trucks
                      and cars.


                      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
                       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).



                      Page 5                                                                             GAO/T-RCED-99-122
On the basis of data from FARS and several studies involving in-depth crash
investigations, OMCHS estimates that truck driver fatigue contributes to 15
to 33 percent of crashes that are fatal to the truck occupant(s) only. OMCHS
estimates that truck driver fatigue contributes to a much lower
percentage—from 1 to 2 percent—of crashes that are fatal to people other
than truck occupants, such as car occupants or pedestrians. The
imprecision of these estimates partly reflects the difficulty of detecting
driver fatigue after crashes occur. Nevertheless, these data indicate that
when truck driver fatigue contributes to crashes, truck drivers are killed
more often than someone outside the truck.

Because of the lack of complete and precise information on factors that
contribute to crashes, OMCHS recently began to design a data base that
contains more detailed information on these factors. OMCHS will provide
funding to NHTSA to collect data on a national sample of large truck
crashes, including fatal, injury, and serious property-damage-only crashes.
OMCHS estimates that the data base 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 similar study, except that AAA’s proposal calls
for the Transportation Research Board to design the study. AAA believes
that this approach allows the widest possible input from the traffic safety
and trucking communities, while providing scientific objectivity and
technical expertise. An OMCHS official agreed that the study would have
more credibility if it were designed by the Transportation Research Board.
As in OMCHS’ study, AAA’s proposal calls for NHTSA to conduct the crash
investigations and data collection. AAA estimates that the study would take
from 3 to 5 years, at a cost of about $5 million.

Beginning in fiscal year 1998, all states submitted annual commercial
vehicle safety plans to OMCHS that included the state’s goals for improving
truck safety and the activities the state will use to meet those goals.
Following OMCHS’ encouragement, several states will attempt to identify
roadways with a greater incidence of crashes or fatalities and design
activities targeted at those roadways. Several states’ plans also include
in-depth crash investigations to determine the prevalence of different
contributing factors. OMCHS is encouraging the states to use a common
format when conducting their crash investigations so that the data
collected by various states will be compatible. Michigan is currently
implementing this format.




Page 6                                                     GAO/T-RCED-99-122
                             OMCHS  has undertaken a number of activities that are intended to improve
OMCHS’ Effectiveness         truck safety. While these activities could have a positive effect on truck
Is Hampered by Data          safety issues over the long term, their effectiveness is limited because
Problems and Slow            (1) OMCHS’ initiative to target high-risk carriers for safety improvements
                             depends on data that are not complete, accurate, or timely; (2) major
Action                       components of several of its activities will not be completed within the
                             next several years; and (3) OMCHS cannot tell whether its campaign to
                             educate car drivers about the limitations of large trucks is working. In
                             addition, representatives from trucking associations and safety groups
                             agree that the effectiveness of OMCHS’ activities is hampered by its
                             slowness in implementing measures to improve truck safety.

                             OMCHS’  activities are just one of many factors that affect the level of truck
                             safety. OMCHS’ activities—either directly or through grants provided to
                             states—are intended to improve truck safety largely by influencing the
                             safety practices of trucking companies and the behavior of truck drivers.
                             There are other factors that affect truck safety that OMCHS does not directly
                             influence, such as the use of safety belts by car occupants, highway design
                             standards, trucks’ and cars’ handling and crashworthiness characteristics,
                             traffic congestion, local traffic laws and enforcement, and state initiatives.


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,
High-Risk Carriers and       known as compliance reviews. To identify high-risk carriers for these
                             reviews, OMCHS uses a safety status measurement system known as
States’ Ability to Develop   SafeStat. SafeStat relies heavily on data from OMCHS’ motor carrier
and Implement Safety         management information system (MCMIS) to rank motor carriers on the
Plans                        basis of four factors: (1) crashes, (2) driver performance, (3) vehicle
                             mechanical condition, and (4) safety management. The crash 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 in the worst 25 percent of all carriers for
                             three or more factors or for the accident 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 MCMIS. For 1997, OMCHS estimated that about
                             38 percent of all reportable crashes and 30 percent of the fatal crashes




                             Page 7                                                       GAO/T-RCED-99-122
involving large trucks were not reported to MCMIS.5 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
MCMIS does not contain a record of a large percentage of crashes, a carrier
that has been involved in a substantial number of crashes might go
undetected by SafeStat. According to OMCHS officials, states do not report
all crashes for several reasons. In particular, (1) states do not understand
that complete reporting would enable OMCHS to more accurately target
high-risk carriers, (2) state employees who submit crash data to MCMIS may
not have sufficient training or incentives, or (3) there may be errors in
some states’ data bases that are preventing the transmittal of the data.
According to OMCHS officials, an initiative to encourage states to report
data for all crashes in a consistent manner is being developed; however,
no implementation date has been set.

SafeStat’s ability to target high-risk carriers is also limited by out-of-date
data in MCMIS. SafeStat uses the census data—such as the number of trucks
operated 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
disproportionate. However, 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 listed in MCMIS, whose number increased from 275,000 to more
than 415,000 over the period.

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.6 However, the states are still not meeting OMCHS’
reporting deadlines. OMCHS’ December 1996 guidance to states requires
that states 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 MCMIS from fiscal year
1997 to 1998 but were missing OMCHS’ deadlines by an average of 8 to 16
days.



5
 For OMCHS’ purposes, a reportable crash must result in a fatality, an injury where the person injured
is taken to a medical facility, or one vehicle having been towed from the scene.
6
Commercial Motor Carriers: DOT Is Shifting to Performance-Based Standards to Assess Whether
Carriers Operate Safely (GAO/RCED-98-8, Nov. 3, 1997).



Page 8                                                                          GAO/T-RCED-99-122
Table 1: Average Number of Days to
Report Results of Roadside                                                                                                  Difference
                                                           Average number of days to report to                             in 1998 and
Inspections, Compliance Reviews, and
                                                                       MCMIS                                   Reporting      reporting
Crashes to MCMIS, Fiscal Years
1996-98                                                           1996             1997            1998         deadline       deadline
                                       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. OMCHS officials said that
                                       insufficient data—such as information on 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.


Several OMCHS Activities               Several of OMCHS’ activities that have the potential to improve large truck
to Improve Large Truck                 safety—including revising the rule governing the number of hours that
Safety Are Years From                  truck drivers can drive and targeting high-risk carriers through the number
                                       of citations drivers receive—will not be completed for several years. The
Completion                             ICC Termination Act of 1995 directed the Federal Highway Administration
                                       to modify the existing hours of service rule for commercial motor vehicles
                                       to incorporate countermeasures for reducing fatigue-related incidents,
                                       such as crashes. The act required the Federal Highway Administration 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. The Federal Highway Administration has not
                                       issued a proposed rule. OMCHS officials explained that revising the rule is a
                                       difficult and very contentious issue and the final rule will not be issued
                                       until 2000 or later.



                                       Page 9                                                                      GAO/T-RCED-99-122
In addition, OMCHS has concluded that high-risk carriers can be more
accurately targeted by tracking the number of citations issued to each
carrier’s drivers. A 1997 report prepared for the Federal Highway
Administration found that trucking companies with higher rates of
citations—for such things as overweight vehicles or moving violations—are
also more likely to have higher accident rates.7 OMCHS officials have said
that they plan to develop software that will track the number of citations
drivers for each carrier receive. However, states must first agree on a
standard format for collecting and reporting citations, and OMCHS does not
yet have an estimated date for implementing its plan to use driver citations
as a targeting mechanism.

Representatives from both trucking associations and safety groups agree
that OMCHS is too slow in implementing measures to improve truck safety.
For example, following a rulemaking by NHTSA requiring that trailers be
manufactured with reflective markings to make them more visible to
drivers of other vehicles, OMCHS decided to consider requiring that older
trailers without such marking be retrofitted. OMCHS issued an advance
notice of proposed rulemaking in January 1994 and, in August 1996,
announced that it would propose a rule establishing requirements for
these markings. OMCHS issued a notice of proposed rulemaking in
June 1998 and expects to issue a final rule within the next 2
months—almost 3 years after it decided to issue a rule in this area and
more than 5 years after the advance notice of proposed rulemaking.
According to an OMCHS official, this rule was delayed in part because of a
difference of opinion within the Department of Transportation over which
trailers the rulemaking should apply to and whether the rulemaking would
be too costly to the trucking industry.

In addition, the ICC Termination Act of 1995 required the Secretary of
Transportation to create an information system to consolidate motor
carrier information, such as census data and insurance and tax
information. Carriers will be required to update this information every
year. 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 within the next 6 months, about 3 years after the
advance notice was issued. According to an OMCHS official, the rule has
been delayed because of insufficient resources and the act’s provision that
states not lose revenue compared to 1995 as a result of the new system.

7
 Driver/Carrier Data Relationship Project, Phase II Report, Prepared by AAMVAnet, Inc., and Keane
Federal Systems for the Federal Highway Administration, (Feb. 1997).



Page 10                                                                       GAO/T-RCED-99-122
Effectiveness of OMCHS’   Because of the large contribution of car driver errors to fatal crashes
Campaign to Educate Car   between large trucks and cars, OMCHS launched the “No-Zone” campaign
Drivers About the         in 1994. (No-Zone is a term used to describe the areas around a truck
                          where the truck driver’s visibility is limited.) This campaign is intended to
Limitations of Large      reduce crashes between large trucks and cars by educating car drivers
Trucks                    about how to safely share the road with large trucks and about trucks’
                          limitations, such as reduced maneuverability, longer stopping distances,
                          and blind spots. The campaign’s public education efforts include public
                          service announcements via radio, television, and print; brochures; posters;
                          and decals on large trucks. Because car drivers between 15 and 20 years
                          old were found to be involved in a relatively high percentage of fatal
                          crashes, the No-Zone campaign focused a large part of its public outreach
                          on this age group.

                          The campaign has a goal of reducing fatal crashes involving large trucks
                          and cars by 10 percent over a 5-year period. However, as evidenced by the
                          overall increase in the number of fatalities since 1994, the campaign
                          apparently did not make any progress toward achieving its goal of
                          reducing fatalities overall through 1997, the last year for which data are
                          available. OMCHS has not determined to what extent, if any, the No-Zone
                          campaign has contributed to changing car drivers’ behavior and reducing
                          crashes between large trucks and cars. While OMCHS plans to conduct a
                          national telephone survey within the next year to determine the level of
                          public recognition of the No-Zone campaign, the survey will not measure
                          whether car drivers’ behavior has changed.


                          Mr. Chairman, this concludes my statement. I will be pleased to answer
                          any questions that you or Members of the Subcommittee may have.




(348160)                  Page 11                                                     GAO/T-RCED-99-122
Ordering Information

The first copy of each GAO report and testimony is free.
Additional copies are $2 each. Orders should be sent to the
following address, accompanied by a check or money order
made out to the Superintendent of Documents, when
necessary. VISA and MasterCard credit cards are accepted, also.
Orders for 100 or more copies to be mailed to a single address
are discounted 25 percent.

Orders by mail:

U.S. General Accounting Office
P.O. Box 37050
Washington, DC 20013

or visit:

Room 1100
700 4th St. NW (corner of 4th and G Sts. NW)
U.S. General Accounting Office
Washington, DC

Orders may also be placed by calling (202) 512-6000
or by using fax number (202) 512-6061, or TDD (202) 512-2537.

Each day, GAO issues a list of newly available reports and
testimony. To receive facsimile copies of the daily list or any
list from the past 30 days, please call (202) 512-6000 using a
touchtone phone. A recorded menu will provide information on
how to obtain these lists.

For information on how to access GAO reports on the INTERNET,
send an e-mail message with "info" in the body to:

info@www.gao.gov

or visit GAO’s World Wide Web Home Page at:

http://www.gao.gov




PRINTED ON    RECYCLED PAPER
United States                       Bulk Rate
General Accounting Office      Postage & Fees Paid
Washington, D.C. 20548-0001           GAO
                                 Permit No. G100
Official Business
Penalty for Private Use $300

Address Correction Requested