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March 2016

Partnerships facilitate the safe movement of goods and people across North America

Like a giant rolling birthday gift, the 18-wheeler next to you on the interstate could have almost anything inside of it. Behind the nondescript lettering on the side of its trailer, for instance, could be hundreds of gallons of milk, bottled water or wine. Just as likely, it could be hauling mini mountains of sand, sugar or cement. There could be TVs inside, or computers. Fresh flowers, or fresh meat. It could even be transporting a missile, or the contents of a movie set.

Whatever it is, hauling it is big business. There are currently more than 10.5 million registered trucks and over 3 million truck drivers on U.S. highways, transporting 13.8 billion tons of freight every year—about 70 percent of all the freight tonnage moved in the United States, according to the most recent Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) data.

Unfortunately, along with their precious cargo, trucks also can deliver damage and danger. As recently as 2013, for example, large trucks were involved in 3,906 fatal crashes, 73,000 injury crashes and 265,000 property-damage-only crashes, according to the most recent Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) data.

For these reasons—the good, the bad and the ugly—establishing and enforcing motor-carrier regulations is among DMVs’ most important missions, argues AAMVA Chair Rick Holcomb, commissioner of the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles. “There is nothing that any of us eats, wears, drives or has in our homes that was not on a truck at some point,” he says. “So we want trucks to be out there moving. But we need to ensure that freight is moving across the AAMVA jurisdictions safely, that both the vehicle and the driver are properly credentialed, that all fees have been paid and that all trucks are within the weight tolerance set by the federal government.”

Vehicle Safety

Safe highways start with safe vehicles, according to Robert Ide, commissioner of the Vermont Department of Motor Vehicles. “If you’re riding in your car, you want to be sure that the trucks traveling around you have up-to-date equipment that’s safe and has been inspected,” Ide explains.

Safety inspections are an issue of core importance in many jurisdictions, including Pennsylvania, where a major challenge is a shortage of sworn police officers trained to do inspections, says Lt. Raymond Cook, director of the Pennsylvania State Police’s Commercial Vehicle Safety Division. “In Pennsylvania we have over 24,000 police officers, yet fewer than 5 percent of them are certified and trained in the enforcement of federal motor carrier safety regulations,” Cook explains. “Not having enough trained motor-carrier inspectors is the biggest problem we have here in Pennsylvania, and I would venture to say nationwide.”

In Virginia, the burden on officers has been reduced with a legislative fix. Formerly, the state required trucks with Virginia license plates to return home for an annual safety inspection; now, state law recognizes both state and federal safety inspections, which means trucks can be inspected virtually anywhere they operate.

At the same time they’re ensuring vehicle safety on the back end with inspections, jurisdictions are ensuring it on the front end with vehicle registrations, according to Tim Adams, CEO of IRP Inc., the organization that administers the International Registration Plan (IRP), a registration reciprocity agreement that allows motor carriers to operate across the United States and Canada by paying a single registration fee.

“In order to operate, a vehicle must be registered,” Adams explains. “A vehicle that’s registered properly has a license plate that falls under the IRP. If law enforcement sees a vehicle without that license plate, it’s a red flag to pull them over.”

Technology promises to streamline safety even further. “In the not-too-distant future [motor carriers’] paper registration credential will be electronic so officers can quickly scan and verify it on their mobile devices,” Adams forecasts. 

Driver Safety

As important as vehicle safety is, driver safety is even more so, according to Cook. “Bad brakes, bad tires and bad suspension components don’t cause most commercial motor vehicle crashes,” he says. “What causes [most] commercial motor vehicle crashes are the very same things that cause most crashes—moving violations, driver distraction, fatigued driving, unsafe lane changes, speeding and following too closely.”

Simply put: It’s all about the driver.

Jurisdictions face myriad challenges when it comes to driver safety. The decision of whether to issue a CDL or take a CDL away from a heavy-duty truck or bus driver begins and ends with the motor vehicle administration or public safety agency. These agencies collaborate through AAMVA and the Canadian Council of Motor Transport Administrators (CCMTA) to develop driver test protocols, examiner training and conviction standards that comply with federal rules, and help close loopholes through which unsafe drivers try to slip.

Roadside law enforcement officers in the United States and Canada pursue uniformity and best practices in enforcing myriad federal safety requirements that govern drivers’ hours of service limits, how drivers log their hours, driver medical fitness and more.

Then there’s the issue of a truck driver shortage, and how regulators can help motor carriers safely address it. “Truck drivers are an aging population, and the need for trucks to move freight across North America is growing. You’ve got to figure out who’s going to drive all those additional trucks,” explains Holcomb, who says Virginia has several laws and programs designed to help, including a statute that allows drivers under the age of 21 to possess an intrastate CDL, a “Troops to Trucks” program that trains military personnel for civilian trucking careers, and a partnership with a federal prison through which it trains low-risk inmates and issues them their CDLs. “While the feds regulate all interstate commerce, individual states regulate movement of freight and passengers within their borders. I would daresay there are probably inconsistencies from one state to another [that should be addressed].”

Cross-Border Safety

It’s important to correct inconsistencies not only between states, but also between countries, according to Peter Hurst, director of carrier safety and enforcement at the Ontario Ministry of Transportation in Ontario, Canada.

“There are 24,000 Canadian motor carriers that operate in the United States, and 16,550 U.S. motor carriers that operate in Canada,” says Hurst, who also is incoming board chair of IRP Inc. and chair of the CCMTA’s Compliance and Regulatory Affairs Committee. “Trucking is incredibly important to the economic well-being of both countries, so it’s important that we understand each other’s safety regimes.”

According to Hurst, total U.S. merchandise trade with Canada totals over $616 billion per year, and over half of that—55 percent—is transported by truck. “Given the volume of traffic that goes back and forth across the U.S.-Canadian border, it’s important to make those borders as transparent as possible,” he continues. “The more we can do to streamline those borders, the better. And since we’re not going to change border security rules, the best way we can do that is to agree to monitor safety of motor carriers in a like manner so that results and outcomes from our safety programs are reasonably similar.”

Consider, for instance, the example set by the Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance (CVSA), which represents commercial motor vehicle safety inspectors and law enforcement from the United States, Canada and Mexico. “Prior to the mid-1980s, trucks were inspected one way in California, another way in British Columbia and another way in Ontario, so drivers never knew what regulations to comply with,” Hurst explains. “That’s no longer the case thanks to CVSA. Today, every inspector in every jurisdiction in North America is trained exactly the same and knows how to inspect a truck in the same manner … It doesn’t work perfectly, but it streamlines things for the industry and makes it easier for drivers to comply.”

Although cross-border relations are generally excellent, work remains. One area of opportunity, for example, is CDL standards, the consistency of which need to be reaffirmed. Another is safety ratings. “We’re not currently accepting one another’s safety ratings,” Hurst says. “Today, an Ontario carrier who’s monitored, registered and rated in Ontario is monitored, registered and rated separately when they go into the United States. They can be sanctioned in Ontario or in the United States. We’d like to see that changed so that only the home jurisdiction is monitoring them.”

Moving Forward, together

Across North America, motor carrier safety is a moving target thanks to technology, politics and economics, all of which are perpetually evolving. Collaboration—among regulators, law enforcement and industry on one hand, and across jurisdictions on the other—is therefore key.

“Our landscape is constantly changing, so we need to be ever-vigilant about what we observe and react to it promptly—together,” Ide says.

An important part of working together is engaging industry. In Vermont, for instance, the DMV makes regular visits to motor carriers’ headquarters to offer on-site training and pre-emptive safety checks. “Our philosophy about compliance is that we’d rather attain it in a cooperative manner than in a penal manner by making the effort to work closely with our truck and bus association and Vermont’s largest commercial carriers to achieve the shared goal of minimizing crashes,” Ide says. “We’ll write tickets, but it’s not our first course of action.”

The same spirit of cooperation exists in Pennsylvania. “It’s so important to listen to the motor carriers and the truck drivers as our customer base—to understand what they’re used to and dealing with in other jurisdictions, and how we can modernize our business to improve the way we operate,” says Anita Wasko, director of the Pennsylvania Bureau of Motor Vehicles. “Highway safety is important, but so is helping motor carriers move and transport goods across our commonwealth, across the country and across the continent. That’s why listening to the industry is so important.”

For the associations, listening to each other is just as important as listening to motor carriers. “We need to find a way for IRP, AAMVA, CCMTA and CVSA to come together to identify what regulations make sense for the industry in terms of safety and economic growth, and then determine how we can make sure those regulations are adopted uniformly across jurisdictions in both the United States and Canada. And once they’re in place, we need to have a governance mechanism to make sure they’re enforced consistently,” Hurst says. “Because we deal with the same thing, but from different points of view, I think there’s an opportunity for the four associations to work together to try to facilitate the safe movement of people and goods across borders and across jurisdictions.”

At AAMVA, Holcomb has made discussing motor carrier issues and regulations a major priority of his chairmanship. “At our January board meeting we formally set up a Motor Carrier Working Group, and we’ve asked them to spend the next six to 12 months doing a gap analysis—what’s in their wheelhouse and what’s not in their wheelhouse—and determine how we can create a forum to discuss some of these issues,” he reports. “[Motor vehicle administrators] should be prepared to participate in that forum by sharing their best practices and also learning best practices from other jurisdictions.”

Concludes Holcomb: “The bottom line is: If you’re a company out there that has properly trained and credentialed your drivers, and they are driving safe equipment safely, Godspeed to you. We want you to be moving your freight. But if you’ve got a driver who’s not properly trained, not properly credentialed, driving a truck that’s overweight or unsafe, then be prepared to visit with law enforcement.”