There has been a lot said about the economic impact the COVID19 pandemic has had on the trucking industry with many lamenting the Great Resignation the led to an exacerbated driver shortage and others celebrating an unyielding consumer demand helped to keep freight rates in many segments strong. Now it’s time to consider the “next normal.”
As the industry adapted and innovated, government and law enforcement fell behind. Fewer roadside inspections were conducted, and the number of compliance reviews dropped. Meanwhile, state driver’s license agencies struggled to schedule appointments for candidates seeking a CDL despite a 30% reduction in demand. But, like industry, the government has also been adapting to the new normal, using technology to adjust protocols in ways that may fundamentally alter the way we interact with government.
Here are a few examples of how our interaction with regulators and law enforcement changed:
- Compliance Reviews: In the early months of the pandemic, FMCSA faced a significant dilemma. How was it to investigate and hold accountable unsafe motor carriers, given the rules stipulate that all rateable compliance reviews be conducted in person? With most of the government working remotely, motor carriers who had already been flagged by FMCSA as High Risk avoided accountability because on-site audits were not being conducted. To address this, FMCSA issued an emergency waiver to itself, allowing for remote reateable reviews. Last summer, in a little-noticed “Technical Changes and Conforming Amendments” rulemaking, FMCSA made this authority permanent. STC has been monitoring this shift in enforcement, and while remote compliance reviews have increased 400% since 2019, the early data indicates they may be less effective in finding the critical and acute violations that ultimately could lead to a safety rating downgrade. We believe remote reviews are here to stay, but the question remains on what the proper mix of remote versus on-sire reviews looks like.
- Third-party testing of CDL Applicants: As the pandemic descended on the US and the trucking industry, State Governments began making changes to protect their employees. State Driver’s Licensing Agencies worked reduced hours with appointment-only scheduling, exacerbating an existing backlog of CDL test scheduling. To accommodate, FMCSA issued another waiver, granting wider authority to states to authorize third parties to conduct CDL skills testing and loosening qualification requirements for CDL test proctors. In early February, FMCSA issued revised regulatory guidance, which permitted state driver’s licensing agencies to utilize third-party testers to conduct knowledge exams on CDL applicants. Allowing third-party tests to administer knowledge exams will significantly ease testing backlogs, particularly as drivers are now required to attend an approved entry-level driver training school who may now be allowed to proctor the knowledge test.
- Technology-based enforcement: While not a direct response to the pandemic, FMCSA has been looking for novel ways to ensure compliance with specific safety rules using technology. The best examples of this are the Drug & Alcohol Clearinghouse, the Training Provider Registry, and in the National Registry of Certified Medical Examiners. In each case, these new databases will allow state and federal officials to monitor carrier compliance with safety rules using these new databases.
- E-inspections: This past summer, several states implemented electronic inspections to facilitate roadside inspections. This initiative has been in the works for several years, but the onset of COVID accelerated plans for some states. As government and carriers move more to a data-driven world, the ability to monitor compliance remotely roadside gives enforcement more visibility over a larger swath of the industry. While in its infancy, STC believes this is the wave of the future, particularly as automated vehicles come online.
As the industry worked to balance the needs of its customers and drivers, many looked to technology and new processes to move the nation’s freight. FMCSA and the states have followed suit, adapting compliance and enforcement programs to meet changing demands. This will allow FMCSA and the states to remotely monitor and investigate motor carriers, vehicles, and drivers, expanding their reach.