Large Truck Safety:

Federal Enforcement Efforts Have Been Stronger Since 2000, but Oversight of State Grants Needs Improvement

GAO-06-156: Published: Dec 15, 2005. Publicly Released: Dec 15, 2005.

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About 5,000 people die and more than 120,000 are injured each year from crashes involving large trucks. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) has several enforcement programs to improve truck safety and funds similar enforcement programs in states through its Motor Carrier Safety Assistance Program (MCSAP). Following concern by Congress and others in 1999 that FMCSA's enforcement approach was ineffective, the agency committed to take stronger actions. This study reports on how FMCSA's enforcement approach has changed, how it makes decisions about its enforcement approach, and how it ensures that its grants to states contribute to the agency's mission of saving lives.

FMCSA has made considerable strides in strengthening its enforcement programs and actions. For example, it almost doubled the number of on-site safety reviews (called compliance reviews) at carriers' bases of operations, from approximately 6,400 in 1998 to 11,300 in 2004. Further, it has increased the average civil penalty by about 75 percent (from $820 to $1,400) over the same period. FMCSA generally maintained its firmer approach to enforcement at a time when it took on the additional responsibilities of conducting homeland security-related reviews of hazardous materials carriers and safety reviews of new carriers. To a large extent, FMCSA follows key effective management practices in making decisions about its enforcement approach. For example, its enforcement approach addresses major risk areas that contribute to (or cause) crashes, and targets its enforcement resources at the motor carriers with the greatest crash risk. FMCSA also has a broad range of enforcement goals and performance measures that it uses to provide direction to--and track the performance of--its enforcement programs. Furthermore, FMCSA is working to obtain additional information on crash risk factors and on the costs and effectiveness of its enforcement programs, as well as alternative approaches that it needs to further refine and set priorities for its programs. However, because FMCSA does not measure the effect that one of its key enforcement tools--civil penalties--has on carriers' compliance with safety regulations, it lacks the information needed to make sound decisions about any changes to its use of civil penalties. MCSAP is designed to improve safety by employing a performance-based approach; however, FMCSA's oversight for these grants is inadequate. In reviewing the 61 program goals set by the seven states that received the largest MCSAP grants, we could not determine whether states substantially met almost two-thirds of these goals due to missing performance information, among other reasons. Further, although FMCSA requires that its various offices periodically review grant activities for adequacy of oversight, few of these reviews are being completed. For example, in the past 3 years, FMCSA's service centers have assessed only 15 of the agency's 52 field division offices (29 percent). FMCSA did not conduct these reviews for various reasons, including a curbed oversight role for service centers and markedly reduced headquarters staffing for MCSAP.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In 2005 we found that the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA)--under its primary state grant program, the Motor Carrier Safety Assistance Program (MCSAP)--had not adequately overseen the development of states' annual safety plans. As a result, FMCSA was unable to determine whether states substantially met many of their safety goals. We recommended that FMCSA ensure that existing mechanisms, such as planning sessions, reviews of draft state plans, and periodic monitoring of states' progress, to the extent possible, are carried out and result in clarity of goals and performance measures and assessments of safety improvements made. In response, in its periodic reviews of states' MCSAP programs, FMCSA emphasized the importance of implementing a performance-based program including a safety plan that discusses progress towards objectives in the previous year's plan. Although the several reviews completed in 2006 through 2009 that we looked at found that states were not meeting this requirement, FMCSA emphasized in its March 2009 guidance to states and its division offices that it is important for states' safety plans to include quantifiable performance measures and an evaluation of performance in prior years. As a result, FMCSA through its ongoing reviews and emphasis on demonstrating safety results should be better able to determine whether states are focusing their attention on, and carrying out, activities that could lead to lives saved.

    Recommendation: To improve accountability for use of MCSAP grant funds, the Secretary of Transportation should direct the FMCSA administrator to ensure that existing mechanisms, such as planning sessions, reviews of draft state plans, and periodic monitoring of states' progress, to the extent possible, are carried out and result in clarity of goals and performance measures and assessments of safety improvements made.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In March 2007, FMCSA implemented this recommendation by establishing goals to (1) close, by the end of 2007, its backlog of 63 enforcement cases in its division offices that had been open for 270 days or more and (2) close, by August 31, 2007, its backlog of 14 cases pending before its Assistant Administrator for Enforcement for more than 18 months, without adding other cases to this backlog.

    Recommendation: To improve the consistency and effectiveness of FMCSA's truck safety enforcement, the Secretary of Transportation should direct the FMCSA administrator to develop and include in its strategy and annual plans a specific numeric or measurable goal to eliminate the agency's backlog of enforcement cases, as required by the Motor Carrier Safety Improvement Act of 1999.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In 2005, we found that the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) did not measure the effect that one of its key enforcement tools--civil penalties--had on motor carriers' compliance with safety regulations. We recommended that FMCSA develop and implement one or more measures of the effectiveness of its civil penalties. In response to a requirement in the Motor Carrier Safety Improvement Act of 1999, and supported by our recommendation, in 2008, the John A. Volpe National Transportation Systems Center updated a 2004 study for FMCSA on revisions the agency made to its civil penalties. The update provided FMCSA with information it needed to make decisions about changes to its use of civil penalties that could help increase carrier compliance, and ultimately safety. For example, based on the update's finding that motor carriers did not appear to be responding to the new penalty of having their interstate operations suspended if they did not pay a civil penalty, FMCSA decided to allow carriers to divert a portion of a civil penalty into an investment in new technologies designed to improve their safety performance.

    Recommendation: To improve FMCSA's ability to establish the most effective structure of civil penalties, the Secretary of Transportation should direct the FMCSA administrator to develop and implement one or more measures of the effectiveness of its civil penalties against motor carriers.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

  4. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In 2005, we found that the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration's (FMCSA) goals and measures for its enforcement programs did not describe expected and estimated contributions to FMCSA's overall goal of reducing the large-truck fatality rate. We recommended that FMCSA set goals for its enforcement programs that are designed to clearly demonstrate these contributions. As part of an effort to develop goals and measures that align with its major strategies, and supported by our recommendation, in 2009, FMCSA began setting an annual goal for the percentage of motor carriers that either improve or maintain a satisfactory level of compliance from one compliance review (the centerpiece of the agency's enforcement efforts) to the next. In addition, in 2009, FMCSA began setting an annual goal for the how much the agency spends on safety activities (including enforcement programs) for each fatality avoided by those activities. Although neither of the goals demonstrates the expected contributions of FMCSA's enforcement programs to the agency's overall goal of reducing the large-truck fatality rate, the goals should provide FMCSA and the public with a better sense of the effectiveness and efficiency of FMCSA's enforcement programs and other safety activities. The goals meet the intent of our recommendation by enhancing FMCSA's ability to make adjustments to its enforcement programs that could help achieve its fatality rate goal.

    Recommendation: To help ensure and demonstrate that FMCSA's enforcement programs contribute to the agency's goal to reduce the large truck fatality rate, the Secretary of Transportation should direct the FMCSA administrator to set goals for its enforcement programs that are designed to clearly demonstrate these contributions.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

  5. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In 2005, we found that the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration's (FMCSA) oversight of the Motor Carrier Safety Assistance Program (MCSAP)--the agency's primary state grant program--was inadequate, but that the agency had several efforts underway to strengthen its oversight, including plans to improve its performance reviews of state activities. Among other things, we recommended that FMCSA assess, upon implementation, whether the improved performance reviews of state activities are meeting the agency's intended goals. In response, in July 2009, FMCSA assessed the results of the approximately 30 reviews it had completed, identifying several systemic deficiencies in states' programs, as well as several noteworthy practices to share with other states. The states are required to develop action plans to address their deficiencies, and FMCSA's division offices are required to monitor implementation of these action plans. As a result of this review and improvement paradigm, FMCSA has identified several ways in which states can improve their MCSAP programs--improvements that could lead to lives saved.

    Recommendation: To improve FMCSA's oversight of MCSAP grantees, the Secretary of Transportation should direct the FMCSA administrator to (1) assess, upon implementation, whether the improved performance review of state activities are meeting the agency's intended goals; (2) incorporate MCSAP oversight as a segment of the effectiveness study of division offices; and (3) assess the oversight activities of service centers.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

 

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