OF ALL the important issues confronting the US transportation community today, none are as important as safety, according to Bill Quade, associate deputy administrator of enforcement and compliance at the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA).
Quade went on to say that the tank truck industry ranks as one of the safest sectors in commercial transportation, but it must do more. He made the remarks May 9 during the NTTC's 59th annual conference in Las Vegas, Nevada.
“Despite the tank truck industry's safety record, we continue to see major incidents, such as the recent petroleum tanker rollover in Oakland, California,” he said. “We're seeing what appears to be an increasing number of rollover crashes. This is bringing increased scrutiny from federal agencies and from the public at large. We have to work together to solve this safety issue.
“At FMCSA, we realize that we cannot treat cargo tank fleets like other trucking companies. We all have to recognize the inherent liability of transporting large quantities of hazardous materials, and we must focus our safety efforts accordingly. That's one reason FMCSA has built a strong partnership with NTTC.”
Quade reviewed recent FMCSA activities, including a recently completed research study on cargo tank rollovers. The agency has been aggressive in conducting roadside inspections, new entrant safety audits, and compliance reviews.
“We know from research studies that roadside inspections and compliance reviews are effective at saving lives,” he said. “However, we also know that the heavy truck fatality numbers have hit a plateau in recent years. We've got to change that.
“At FMCSA, we're working to improve our tools. Through our CSA 2010 program, we seek to make our investigations and rating system more dynamic and targeted.”
The agency currently conducts compliance reviews on about 15,000 carriers annually. The goal is to reach 60,000 to 75,000 carriers a year.
FMCSA also is taking steps to strengthen the new entrant safety assurance program. A proposed rule for the enhanced program was published in December 2006, and a final rule is under development.
Truck drivers will get more attention in the future. Since 2005, FMCSA has been able to provide funding that allows state officials to conduct truck safety enforcement that does not involve a vehicle inspection. The program effectively added 500,000 law enforcement officials to the team of 10,000 commercial vehicle inspectors.
“The flexibility in this program has enabled us to look at more than just the commercial vehicles,” Quade said. “We're also able to target motorists operating unsafely around the heavy trucks. Today, 17 states are involved in the program.”
Turning to the tanker rollover issue, Quade said that FMCSA is reviewing the final report from the survey that the agency commissioned. The final report still hasn't been released to the public, but Quade reviewed the findings in considerable detail.
The objective of the research was to evaluate four possible approaches to decrease the number of cargo tank rollovers: trailer design, electronic stability systems, highway design, and driver training. The study concludes that there is no single solution to all heavy vehicle rollovers.
However, researchers found that driver error contributed to 75% of all the tanker rollovers that were studied. Further, just 10% of the rollovers could be blamed on excessive speed on a freeway on- or off-ramp. Running off the road turns out to be the most common rollover factor, and inattention, speed, or drowsiness are contributors.
The driver factor can be addressed with training. Researchers found that simulators used in driver training can impact the reduction in overall crashes and help prevent rollovers.
Electronic stability aids are part of the solution to the rollover problem, Quade said, but industry leaders must remember that these systems only address a portion of the problem. Concerns were raised during the research that drivers would be tempted to use the technology to take curves at unsafe speeds.
Vehicle design offers another way to reduce the rollover potential. Cargo tanks with a slightly lower center of gravity could reduce rollovers 10% to 15%, but this solution is expensive. A wider axle track (102 inches compared with the standard 96 inches) would provide the greatest improvement in rollover stability, according to the study. This probably would require some regulatory changes, Quade said.
On the highway design side, the study suggests that drivers need more information on unusual curves, grades, or traffic patterns. Routes should be planned to avoid highway locations that make it difficult to maneuver heavy vehicles.
Once FMCSA accepts the final report, it will be posted on the FMCSA web site. FMCSA and the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration will use the report as the starting point for developing a comprehensive strategy to address cargo tank rollovers.
Electronic on-board recorders (EOBRs) also are getting plenty of attention from FMCSA for use as a tool in preventing heavy truck accidents. Initially, FMCSA wants to require EOBRs for fleets with a history of serious hours-of-service violations. The agency hopes to provide a variety of incentives to encourage voluntary adoption of EOBRs by the rest of the trucking industry.
“Our goal is to get more commercial vehicles using innovative safety technologies, like EOBRs, that will improve safety on our nation's roads,” Quade said. “By promoting the use of smart technologies — such as those that warn drivers of dangerous situations like rollovers and lane departures — we can prompt behavior and actually bring interventions in the driver's actions that will avoid collisions.
“The public expects hazardous materials transportation to be incident- and fatality-free. It is the responsibility of all of us to meet this safety obligation. The tank truck industry already has plenty of reason to be proud of its safety record, but the carriers can never relax their guard.”