Department of Transportation (DOT) methodology used to rate carriers on safety fitness is firmly in place, expected to remain so, and may become more exacting. Companies would do well to understand the system to avoid penalties, said William H Nalley, president of Nalley & Associates Inc.

He discussed DOT audits and regulations at the National Tank Truck Carriers (NTTC) safety council seminar April 8-9 in Nashville, Tennessee.

He recommended that companies obtain a copy of their safety profile, which costs $27.50 from DOT, analyze the data, correct it, and verify the logs that are noted. "Get it, because you must know what DOT knows about you," Nalley urged.

The Motor Carrier Management Information System (MCMIS) reveals the company name, where it is headquartered, what products are transported, inspection information, state-reported accidents, safety and compliance reviews, enforcement actions, safety ratings, and vehicles, drivers, and hazardous materials out-of-service rates.

A company should compare data on its own drivers, vehicles, and hazardous materials out-of-service rates to the national average. In addition, out-of-service jumps are acute violations. "Make sure this isn't happening," said Nalley.

Vehicles that have received defect correction notices should undergo the applicable maintenance, and the repairs should be recorded. "Verify vehicle out-of-service repair with maintenance records," said Nalley. "Out-of-service still appears to be the single most often cited violation. It results in less-than-satisfactory safety ratings and brings enforcement action.

"If you do not correct any critical violation in the hours-of-service area, you will not receive a satisfactory overall rating, even though all other factors, including the accident rate, are satisfactory."

The history of DOT safety ratings began when Congress ordered DOT and the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) to combine tasks so that the ICC would be advised of a carrier's safety fitness. Today, the information is used by DOT to regulate shipments of hazardous materials and other federal agencies for their data programs, and shippers to scrutinize prospective carriers. Lawyers obtain the information for accident and liability cases. The rating also affects self-insurance approval.

One company with 25 trucks estimated it lost $25,000 per week in revenue because its safety rating dropped, he said. Another company was forced to pay $1.5 million to replace its self-insurance after it suffered a rating plunge.

In 1997 one lawsuit against DOT ended with part of the safety rating regulations being struck down, but companieshauling hazardous materials continue to face strict rules, said Nalley.

The American Trucking Associations has filed a lawsuit against DOT disagreeing with the safety fitness rating program. ATA argues that the practice does not reflect the overall safety posture of a carrier. ATA also contends that true random sampling is not used in the auditing process, and that the rating methodology reflects "paper compliance," not actual performance. "The case is still being heard," said Nalley.

The new method for determining a company's safety rating in relation to accidents has few changes from the old rule, he said. In the new rule, for the rating to be considered satisfactory, the threshold is set at 1.5 million miles traveled per accident (1.7 million miles for urban carriers). The old rule took into account "preventable" accidents that were determined by DOT. "People felt this method was subjective," he said. "It is important to understand how the overall safety rating is determined."

Nalley recommended that carriers present a defense to DOT when involved in accidents, whether the carrier is at fault or not.

"My guess is that the present system is with us for the next year or two, unless ATA wins its court suit," he said.

DOT has enforcement procedures that include civil penalties, criminal penalties, compliance orders, and consent orders. "Acute and critical violations are the ones most often enforced," said Nalley.

If an investigator finds a pattern of certain violations, such as false logs, the safety rating will be reduced and prosecution will follow. If an unsatisfactory overall safety rating is determined, a company has 45 days to correct the infraction or its hazardous materials segment will be shut down.

"Remember the rule of three strikes and you are out," he said. If a company receives three enforcement actions in three years, plus any rating less than satisfactory, DOT can order the carrier to cease operations to the extent needed to abate the hazard.

If a proposal in the 1998 Motor Carrier Safety Act is adopted, a 60-day shutdown procedure would be applied to any carrier with an unsatisfactory safety rating.

At the same time, DOT is considering a new system to replace the current rating system to determine which carriers require auditing. In the event of an audit, Nalley suggested that companies: *Use one company representative as a contact person for the investigator. *See that all requests by the investigator go through the contact person. *Don't let the investigator wander through the premises. *Don't let the investigator interview or talk with other employees unless accompanied by the contact person. *Don't let the investigator make his/her own copies of documents. Make the copies for the investigator to see what is being listed. *If the investigator requests copies of documents, the contact person should deliver them to the investigator. *The contact person should make copies of each document given to the investigator and keep a record of what was supplied to the investigator. *Keep a record of all documents reviewed by the investigator, including how many and what type of documents were reviewed. *Be sure the investigator follows the DOT sampling procedure. Keep track of what is going on. Auditing methods can be disputed. *Determine if the investigator is "stacking the deck." *Determine if all records reviewed by the investigator are counted in the sample. *When counting violations to determine if a 10% violation rate exists, determine if the majority of instances are minuscule violations, for example 10.25 hours of driving where 10 hours is the maximum. *When counting missing logs, false logs, and hours of service violations, off-duty days should be counted in the total population of the sample.

While companies wrestle with compliance under the current program, more rules and regulations are on the way with a new federal highway bill. The bill under consideration consists of more than $200 billion for highways, safety projects, and transit, said James E Scapellato, division administrator for the Federal Highway Administration in Nashville, Tennessee.

"A lot of this affects your ability to compete in the global market," said Scapellato. Although the language isn't specific in a Senate proposal that reauthorizes hazardous materials regulations, more authority will be given to local inspectors for any shipment labeled hazardous material.

The Department of Transportation will push for stiff safety regulations. "If you don't think safety is important, the DOT is going to show you," said Scapellato.

Goals for the funding include a move to reduce fatalities and injuries by 10%. The laws governing driving while intoxicated (DWI) will be enhanced by lowering the allowable blood alcohol content. Millions of dollars are at stake in this action, he said.

Computerized signs placed along highways to warn travelers of road conditions will require "big bucks," and $50 million will go toward highway pavement. Funding will be applied to research and education on driver behavior, truck roadside rest areas, means for improving mobility, and ways to ease congestion. "You spend more time sitting on the highway than you do driving on it," noted Scapellato.

Other plans include providing monetary incentives to highway construction contractors to encourage them to meet deadlines and work in off-traffic hours. Also part of the bill is a two-year study for developing plans to improve intermodal connectors between ports, railroads, and highways.

Because public opinion and attention have focused on spills and accidents, funding will be going to environmental programs. "People, unfortunately, are afraid of trucks," he said. "They don't understand them."

To implement, regulate, and enforce the highway bill, Congress has ordered highway department administrative changes. Field offices will be reduced from the current nine to four. Locations for the new Technical Resource Centers, as they will now be called, are scheduled to be announced in early summer 1998. The department divisions will be given more authority, but Scapellato predicted the adjustments will take three to four years to complete. Decisionmaking will be centralized in the Washington DC headquarters. For example, the Research and Special Programs Administration (RSPA) will be coordinated at the Washington level, but implemented at the field level. "It's just to build efficiency," he said.

Two areas yet to be addressed are driver fatigue and hours of service. A study on fatigue has indicated that time of day is more important than hours spent on a task. It also indicated that drivers sleep less than the stated ideals, self-assessment of performance was inaccurate, and individual assessment differences were significant. "We've got some problems here," he said.

Enforcement of regulations, both new and old, is expected to be stepped up. To avoid citations, companies are advised to use qualified tank and vehicle inspectors before the equipment is put on the road, said Rick Gobbel, Tennessee director of the Federal Highway Administration. "It's very simple to become a cargo tank inspector," he warned.

When federal violations are suspected, investigators look at driver, vehicle, management, and safety records. The investigation includes a compliance review, high risk evaluation, prior histories of non-compliance, and driver review.

Driver behavior on the road is not always evident to employers because some infractions are not reported. Gobbel admitted that drivers often escape traffic tickets because the arresting officer doesn't want to take the time to appear in court. "Troopers don't like to stop trucks," he said. When a driver is stopped for violating traffic regulations, but troopers don't issue citations, employers are unaware of the situation that otherwise could be dealt with in the driver's evaluation.

To remedy this situation and others, Gobbel recommended that the industry become involved with law enforcement officials so that more rapport can be developed with all involved. In some areas, drivers are riding with state troopers in an effort to expand communication between law enforcement and the industry.

He also noted the importance of driver training, especially at driver schools. Companies should interact with the schools and emphasize the importance of tank instruction in the curriculum.