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August 10, 2015 2:15 AM, EDT

DOT Analysis of HOS Rule Gets Mixed Review in Audit

This story appears in the Aug. 10 print edition of Transport Topics.

A Government Accountability Office audit on statistical methodology at the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration gave the agency mixed grades on its assessment of drivers’ hours of service and suggested that mandatory electronic logging might one day be used to gain better understanding of how drivers operate.

The July 29 report from GAO, a congressional agency, said FMCSA “followed most generally accepted research standards” but also that it “did not completely meet certain research standards, such as reporting limitations and linking the conclusions to the results.”

Susan Fleming, a GAO director, led the 13-month audit, which was completed in July.

GAO approved of FMCSA’s performance on choosing valid and reliable measures for evaluations, using quality-control standards to identify data inconsistencies or errors and reporting results and analysis that could be supported by data.

The partial approvals covered using a methodology that would support accomplishing the study’s objectives and reporting conclusions linked to results.

For the final standard, reporting the study’s limitations, including their potential effect on results, GAO said FMCSA did not follow that practice.

The report generated a celebratory response by Department of Transportation officials that American Trucking Associations derided as excessive spin control.

The audit was sent to Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Pa.), chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, and Sen. Deb Fischer (R-Neb.), chairwoman of a Senate subcommittee that deals with truck safety. The two panels asked GAO to examine a 2014 FMCSA report on safety and the HOS rule.

For 18 months — from July 2013 through December 2014 — FMCSA required through HOS that drivers include 1 a.m. to 5 a.m. on consecutive days when they used the restart provision. The use of restart was also capped at once per week, or 168 hours.

Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx welcomed the GAO audit, saying it “provides further evidence that the changes FMCSA made to the HOS rules improve highway safety” by saving lives and lowering the risk of driver fatigue.

“This reinforces our belief that these lifesaving measures are critical to keeping people safe on the roads. We value the GAO’s independent review and will use their recommendations to further strengthen our department’s research to ensure that we have the best data available to keep our roads safe,” Foxx said in a July 30 statement.

ATA responded the next day, saying that the DOT statement ignored the bulk of the report, “choosing instead to cherry-pick a handful of points in a desperate effort to influence lawmakers.”

Dave Osiecki, ATA chief of advocacy, said, “It is unfortunate that rather than present an accurate and balanced characterization of the GAO report, FMCSA is once again living in Spin City.”

As for how to examine HOS restart now, the audit was not optimistic.

“Due to current data limitations, it is not possible to fully evaluate the rule’s impact. For example, our analysis suggests that the rule may have affected a larger population of drivers than FMCSA anticipated, but without representative data there is no way to be certain this is universally the case,” the audit said.

Paper logs make it difficult to gather driving information on a national scale.

But FMCSA’s final rule on electronic-logging devices, expected by Sept. 30, could lead to substantial amounts of data, though designing such a project would be challenging, the report said.

GAO offered recommendations to Congress and DOT. The report urged consideration of directing DOT to study and provide a report identifying approaches for extracting, storing and analyzing electronically collected drivers’ schedule data. Such a report should include the potential benefits, privacy and cost concerns for how such issues could be mitigated, the report said.

DOT, the audit said, should help ensure that FMCSA’s future studies follow generally accepted research standards. The department’s secretary should direct FMCSA to adopt guidance outlining research standards for designing, analyzing and reporting the results of scientific research.