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5 questions for the FMCSA boss

5 questions for the FMCSA boss

Acting Administrator Darling at a truck stop with Jim Johnston (middle), President of the Owner-Operators Independent Drivers Association, and truck driver Leo Wilkins (right). Photo courtesy OOIDA

So, you’re a trucker sitting in the diner at the truck stop and in walks the head of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. You might not recognize him: just another guy dressed in jeans and sneakers, a ball cap and safety vest.

But, if Acting Administrator Scott Darling's recent two-day ride-along was any indication, word quickly would get around the truck stop and, truckers being truckers, a lively conversation would break out. What would you ask him?

Darling discusses his recent 800 mile Midwest trip in a Wednesday post on the DOT's Fast Lane blog, and you can get the official version there. A more lively account is provided by our friends at the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Assn., which arranged the excursion.

According to the story, Darling introduced himself and “the whole place busted out in a discussion.” 

He said he saw the “complaints” as “opportunities and challenges.”

Topping the list were drivers' concerns about hours of service flexibility, detention time and truck parking. These, of course, are fundamental and inextricably connected issues. 

And while Darling's blog post spells out DOT's ongoing work on the parking problem, his comment on delays at the dock are worth noting.

"In the next surface transportation reauthorization bill, there should be some consideration given to the idea of compensating drivers for detention time and other similar non-driving on-duty periods at a rate that is at least equal to the federal minimum wage," Darling writes. 

Of course, it's going to be another five years before we get a new highway bill--and recent history suggests a year or two of delays could push these reforms even further down the road. And then there's the time it'll take to develop and implement a rule, especially one that's going to get a lot of resistance from various players in the supply chain. So don't get your hopes up, driver.

Darling otherwise says nice things about professional truckers, but it's an official post and not exactly, um, personal. He comes across much more naturally in the OOIDA story.

In an interview with Land Line Now’s Reed Black, Darling spoke enthusiastically about the trip, calling it "the adventure of [his] adult life."

"And I appreciate all the things that [OOIDA Life Member Leo Wilkins] did to be courteous and to use his common sense as he was on the road," he said of the owner-op he rode with. "I wish every driver who drove a truck or a bus or even a passenger car took the same approach that Leo had everywhere we went. ... It’s about wisdom, experience and knowledge.”

Darling’s run ended in Grain Valley, MO, just in time for him to catch an OOIDA board meeting and participate in a “frank discussion on a load of thorny topics,” according to the report.

There was, however, a catch. Because OOIDA has gone to court with some of its objections to FMCSA policy, Darling couldn’t talk about issues like electronic logging devices, Mexican trucks, Data Q challenges, or any other topics he’s being sued over by his hosts.

Still, the chat was reported to be lively. Possibly indicating coming changes in the rulemaking process, Darling admitted that he’s “really into the reg neg process.” That’s the consensus-building point of a “negotiated rulemaking,” used for the first time at FMCSA to develop the new entry-level driver training proposal. Essentially, under Darling’s “big tent theory,” everybody with an interest in an issue gets a seat at the table and the various sides work out their differences in face to face debate rather than in court after a rule is published.

Will it work on a matter more divisive than basic, federal driver training minimums? We’ll see.

But that’s not one of my truck stop questions for the acting administrator. Since I’m not suing him, I hope he can get back to me on all of these.

Riddle me these

We’ll start with an easy one, but one I hear all the time from truckers.

How can a lawyer with no trucking experience regulate this industry?

That’s so easy, in fact, I’ll suggest a response. Darling’s job is to manage FMCSA, not move freight. He might just as easily manage the Federal Widget Administration. And I’m sure he’ll point to the trucking expertise of many on the FMCSA staff. (Although, it seems to me, FMCSA is well stocked with regulatory enforcement veterans—and that’s not the same as long-time drivers.)

Of course, federal rulemaking procedures require public comment as a regulation is being developed. And, in fact, each and every one of these comments is read. But whose voice really matters? Maybe Darling can let us know.  And again, his fondness for negotiated rulemakings means someone at FMCSA needs skills as a mediator. The truckers at the table can speak for themselves. As can Darling on this question.

Here’s a hypothetical puzzler that’s a little more fun.

A new Republican president and a Republican Congress get together and decide to reduce the federal regulatory burden. They call for every agency to get rid of just one regulation. What rule would you throw out?

And since Darling’s a lawyer, he should be skilled at arguing either side of an issue.

So, Mr. Administrator: What's your best case against a speed limiter mandate for trucks? (If you need help on this one, just drop by the truck stop again and ask around.)

After all of your praise for the professionalism of owner-op Leo Wilkins, for his “wisdom, experience and knowledge,” what do you say to truckers with 20 years and a couple of million accident-free miles behind them that are stuck with regulations designed around the lowest common denominator?

Specifically, why do experienced, safe drivers literally have to pay for the mistakes of others?

Finally, for my amusement.

What do you and your staff say afterwards about the clueless questions you get from members of Congress in hearings? You can tell us.

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