SAN ANTONIO — The country’s top motor carrier enforcement officer complimented the motorcoach industry for its recent safety performance but stressed that there is still more work to do.
“Unfortunately we are seeing an upward trend in all crashes, including cars and trucks,” said Jack Van Steenburg, assistant administrator and chief safety officer of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, during the State Association Summit at Motorcoach Expo 2018.
“From 2015 to 2016 the number of fatal crashes involving trucks and buses increased 5.6 percent, from 3,864 to 4,079. Let me dig deeper. Motorcoach fatal crashes decreased from 34 to 16. I really commend you for your efforts. I am talking to the people who are the experts. You put safety at the top of your business agenda,” he said.
“It sounds good but we are one crash away from scrutiny. One major incident is going to roll over on this industry. We are going to be scrutinized for every little thing we do or don’t do,” Van Steenburg said.
“That is what happened back in 2011 when we had a series of crashes. That started the leasing rule and enhanced inspections. I don’t want us or you to ever get complacent.”
He addressed many topics during his visit, beginning with statistics comparing the safety performance of motorcoach operators to other commercial carriers.
“There were about 28,000 inspections of motorcoaches last year. From those about 7,000 violations were written. The out-of-service rate for motorcoach drivers was 1.9 percent. For truck drivers it was 5.1 percent,” he said.
“The vehicle out-of-service rate for motorcoaches was 7.8 percent. For trucks it was 21.2 percent. You are doing something right. Keep it up.”
Van Steenburg added that 88 percent of motorcoach compliance reviews last year resulted in satisfactory ratings, eight percent in conditional ratings and one percent in unsatisfactory ratings. He called the remaining review results “outliers” that could not be classified.
He discussed complaints he hears from some operators who believe they are subject to too many inspection visits.
“There are about 2,671 motorcoach carriers registered with us. We have a congressional mandate to do a ratable review once every three years, so for the most part we do 900 a year. Once every three years, whether you need it or not, we are going to be there,” Van Steenburg said.
“We do focus on high-risk carriers. There are about 3,000 high-risk motor carriers out there. I can’t remember the number of high-risk motorcoach carriers that are out there. It might be less than five. We are not focusing on high-risk motorcoach carriers because there aren’t any.”
It is important to focus scrutiny on carriers of all sizes due to the passenger volumes they carry, he said. While fleets with 100 or more motorcoaches handle 35 percent of all trips, fleets of one to nine book 27 percent of trips.
Van Steenburg asked operators to give him specific details about abusive practices by commercial vehicle inspectors or unacceptable delays in issuing operating authority to new applicants.
“For years I have heard inklings of certain states doing roadside and weigh station inspections, stretching policy and stretching the law. I would love to hear specifics because we will address them,” he said.
Inspectors are not required to find violations, Van Steenburg asserted. “When people say they think we have to go in and find something, that is not true. There is no gotcha. Am I discounting that it may happen? Every inspector is supposed to do things the same way, but there are differences.”
If an operator does think a violation is unreasonable, he said, “Please let us know.”
Later he added, “It has nothing to do with money. We don’t get the money. It probably goes into the general fund. We are going by what is in the law.”
He also addressed complaints about how long it takes for new entrants to get operating authority.
“I hear it takes a while to get operating authority. With our electronic system, we screen every single application of a carrier regardless of what you are applying for. We receive about 48,000 a year. We received 1,757 passenger carrier applications last year. About 400-plus were motorcoach applicants.”
The FMCSA computer program searches six years of records for crash histories and commonalities with carriers ordered out of service.
“Most of those applicants are released to go for full operating authority within 72 hours. We only flagged 6 percent to do vetting. Those usually get held up for eight weeks. There are always outliers. If you have concerns, let us know.”
FMCSA rejected operating authority applications for 116 carriers last year, including 11 passenger carriers, Van Steenburg said.
The National Registry 2 for driver medical information was scheduled to go live in June 2018 but will be delayed because the federal government is operating under temporary continuing resolutions rather than a final federal budget, Van Steenburg said.
“Now there is a manual process for a driver to register his medical certificate. National Registry 2 automates that for the most part. After a physical the medical examiners will submit by midnight the following day all the medical certificates they have. We will send it to the state licensing agency,” he said.
“It is an electronic process. It saves the responsibility on the driver and makes it a lot easier for the state licensing authority because they are not going to get all that traffic, faxes and emails.”
However, Van Steenburg said, “We have to allow time for the states to build their databases to be compatible for the national database. I don’t think it is going to be practical for the states to have something ready by June.”