2101 Constitution Avenue Washington, D.C. 20418

Office Location
2001 Wisconsin Avenue, N.W.
Washington, D.C.

Telephone: (202) 334-2934
Telex: 248664 NASWUR
Telefax: (202) 334-2003

April 21, 1999

Mr. Kenneth R. Wykle
Federal Highway Administration
Room 4218
400 7th Street, SW
Washington, D.C. 20590

Dear Mr. Wykle:

On behalf of the Research and Technology Coordinating Committee (FHWA), I am pleased to submit this brief report on the scope and direction of the research and development (R&D) program of the Office of Motor Carrier and Highway Safety (OMCHS). The report is in response to the July 1998 request included in the Senate Committee on Appropriations report on appropriations for the Department of Transportation (Report 105-249), which directed FHWA to request that the RTCC "review the scope and direction of the Office of Motor Carrier research program, its organizational framework, diversity of projects, and allocation of funds." The purpose of the review was to assess whether the office’s motor carrier R&D program (formerly housed in the Office of Motor Carriers) is organized to make the greatest possible contribution to the strategic goals and performance measures of OMCHS.

The committee formed a task force whose members—C. Michael Walton, Joel Anderson, Forrest Council, Larry Goode, Michael Ryan, and David Willis—met with OMCHS staff on February 8, 1999, for a full day to review the R&D program. The task force made several suggestions to OMCHS staff about the scope of a briefing that was to be presented to the entire committee.

This letter report is based on information obtained during the meeting between the task force and OMCHS staff, the presentation by OMCHS staff to the full committee at the RTCC’s meeting on March 29, and subsequent committee discussions. The committee would like to commend OMCHS for its accomplishments in identifying and addressing selected motor carrier safety issues while also responding to congressional requests and other recommendations for specific research project direction. For a more rigorous assessment of OMCHS’s R&D program and its staff, however, more time and deliberation would be required to examine several issues, especially those related to the causes of motor carrier crashes, priority setting, and allocation of R&D resources.

Background on OMCHS and Motor Carrier R&D

In 1997, 41,967 people died in highway crashes; 5,355 of these resulted from crashes involving heavy trucks.1 Nevertheless, fatal crash involvement by heavy trucks dropped from 3.7 to 2.5 per 100 million vehicle miles traveled from 1988 to 1997. During that same period, the injury crash involvement rate dropped from 68 to 51 per 100 million vehicle miles. At the same time, the number of registered heavy trucks increased by 15 percent, the number of registered passenger vehicles increased by 16 percent, and vehicle miles traveled by heavy trucks increased by 35 percent compared with a 26 percent increase for passenger vehicles. With vehicle registrations and travel by all types of vehicles expected to increase considerably in the next 10 years, motor carrier safety will continue to be an important issue for FHWA.

Motor carrier safety must be addressed on several fronts because any single effective countermeasure is unlikely to result in a major reduction in crashes or lives lost. Safety improvements are affected by many factors, including the large variety and size of operators and the variety of equipment used, the complex chain of causation in vehicle crashes, and evidence suggesting that the driver at fault in the majority of fatal multivehicle crashes is not the trucker.2 Thus, progress is likely to come from small improvements achieved through safety interventions involving a wide range of contributing factors, including motor carrier driver behavior, driver screening and training, driver licensing, vehicle standards, alcohol and drug use, and the impact of alternative enforcement practices. The role of safety research is to identify and evaluate the most promising interventions. Research can also provide the knowledge needed to make more effective investment decisions. For example, since the costs of instituting a new regulation to improve motor carrier safety are substantial, research can be undertaken to assess the costs and benefits of potential regulations to ensure that these investments are made wisely to achieve cost-effective safety benefits.

The mission of OMCHS is to help move people, goods, and commercial vehicles on the nation’s highways in the most efficient and safest possible manner. OMCHS establishes and enforces operating regulations for commercial motor vehicles (large trucks and buses) engaged in interstate commerce through the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations (FMCSR). These regulations govern the operation of commercial motor carriers and drivers and encompass motor carrier safety practices, driver qualifications and licensing, and equipment repair and maintenance. The goal of the OMCHS R&D program is to improve safety in motor carrier operations and to support OMCHS’s regulatory and enforcement efforts.

OMCHS currently organizes its research efforts into the following eight focus areas:

OMCHS’s 1999 R&D budget projections indicate that OMCHS plans to spend (after budget reductions for several administrative and support elements)3 25 percent on regulatory evaluation and reform, 23 percent on compliance and enforcement, 20 percent on driver alertness and fatigue, and 12 percent on driver medical qualifications and fitness (see enclosed table). The remaining 20 percent is divided among the other four focus areas. The focus on regulations and compliance issues reflects work undertaken in support of OMCHS program office tasks related to these areas. Topics range from information and educational activities related to field enforcement activities to the development and testing of technologies that support vehicle/driver roadside inspections and enable electronic write-up of enforcement cases.

The focus on driver alertness and fatigue represents work undertaken under mandate by Congress to support proposed revisions to the hours of service (HOS) regulations that govern how much time within a specified period commercial vehicle drivers are permitted to drive. The current HOS regulations were established in 1939. In preparation for the revision effort, OMCHS and other organizations, including components of the trucking industry, have undertaken considerable research during the past decade to examine issues related to human physiology and work tasks, driver fatigue, and motor carrier operations and management.

Other offices within FHWA and other agencies within the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) have highway safety responsibilities and conduct R&D. FHWA’s Research, Development, and Technology (RD&T) Service Business Unit undertakes highway safety research related to human factors, highway and roadside design, driver visibility, and pedestrians and bicyclists. Also within U.S. DOT, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) focuses on vehicle and equipment regulations and safety, and the Research and Special Projects Administration (RSPA) establishes and enforces regulations for containers used in the transportation of hazardous materials. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), an independent agency that reports directly to Congress, conducts in-depth investigations of significant motor carrier accidents. On the basis of these investigations, NTSB makes recommendations for amendments to FHWA regulations and industry practices.

Findings and Recommendations

Finding: The OMCHS R&D program is neither needs based nor objectively prioritized. It focuses too much on regulatory and enforcement issues and not enough on crash prevention and countermeasures. This is due largely to the Office’s historical orientation toward fatigue and HOS issues and a lack of truck crash causation data.

Historically, the motor carrier R&D program has been highly reactive to contemporary concerns or mandated issues instead of being based on motor carrier safety needs identified through systematic analysis of data on motor carrier crash causation. The primary focus of OMCHS research in the past decade was driver fatigue and HOS issues; much of this research has been completed. The opportunity now exists to focus OMCHS R&D efforts on issues that address the greatest opportunities for achieving improvements in motor carrier safety. This orientation will be needed if OMCHS is to achieve its stated goal of reducing truck-related fatal crashes by 20 percent, especially in view of annual increases in vehicle miles traveled by all motor vehicles.

Because highway crashes involve a complex mix of driver, vehicle, road design, and local environmental factors, motor carrier safety research depends on careful analysis of crash data to help focus safety interventions on areas of greatest potential benefit. Existing programs for collecting truck crash and travel data do not provide adequate information for essential government regulatory, enforcement, or planning functions. Information gaps include details on the causes of nonfatal truck crashes and truck travel by type of truck, road class, and geographic area. The lack of these data makes it difficult to identify potentially high-payoff R&D topics, formulate new policy initiatives, and determine the safety consequences of regulatory policies that affect trucks. Such data can also help the Office monitor its efforts aimed at achieving a substantial decrease in motor carrier crashes and related fatalities.

Safety data systems are costly, and an extensive truck crash causation database could easily consume the entire budget of the OMCHS R&D program. However, a limited study, modeled after the National Accident Sampling System (NASS) maintained by NHTSA, could supply the necessary information for R&D needs analysis and priority setting. (NASS currently does not include truck crashes.) A NASS-type study would involve in-depth investigations of a probability sample of police-reported truck crashes. Information would also have to be gathered on truck travel during the study period. Although OMCHS recognizes the need for crash causation data, this has not yet been made a high priority.

Achieving an objectively prioritized set of research topics and projects will require a systematic process that includes consideration of crash risks, areas of research that could yield potential countermeasures, estimates of the research risks and potential benefits, potential research topics, and an assessment mechanism. The Federal Railroad Administration recently began developing such a process for its R&D program. OMCHS could review this and other such processes in preparation for developing its program.

Recommendation 1: Because the priorities for OMCHS research activities should be based on an objective analysis of data on motor carrier crash causation, OMCHS should begin immediately to develop a motor carrier crash causation database that will provide the information required to determine specific research needs. In addition, the Office should develop a systematic process for determining an objectively prioritized set of research topics and projects.

Finding: Compiling sufficient crash causation data to accomplish the aims associated with the Recommendation 1 will take several years. Therefore, the committee believes more immediate steps are needed to redirect OMCHS’s current R&D activities toward data-based needs with significant potential for reducing crashes and fatalities.

While OMCHS is developing its truck crash causation database, it will still lack sufficient data for the development of a needs-based R&D program. Consequently, interim steps are needed to reorient the Office’s R&D program and set priorities. OMCHS needs information about truck crash causation and a careful analysis of what this information says about crash risks, potential countermeasures and benefits, and research that can yield a significant payoff in crash reduction. OMCHS could work with motor carrier and highway safety experts, as well as industry representatives, to conduct a preliminary assessment in these areas.

Information about truck crash causation is available from several states, and might be available through individual motor carriers if they could be convinced to share it. While such information represents a limited sample of a large problem, it could be examined to identify broad trends and significant issues.

Recommendation 2: OMCHS should immediately initiate an interim effort to examine available information and conduct a preliminary assessment of motor carrier accident types and their frequency and severity as well as opportunities for reducing the largest number of accidents through R&D. OMCHS should examine its current R&D resource allocation in light of this assessment to determine how its R&D program can be realigned to achieve cost-effective safety benefits.

Finding: OMCHS’s Strategic Plan and its recent draft Safety Action Plan are useful for developing the strategic focus and proposed actions for the Office’s R&D activities. Continuing development of such plans and actions could benefit from more consistent interaction with and inputs from the broad constituency the Office serves.

OMCHS’s Strategic Plan needs to incorporate the views of the Office’s broad constituency, including the motoring public, the motor carrier industry, commercial motor carrier drivers, manufacturers of commercial motor vehicles and equipment, human factors and highway safety experts, and representatives of state highway safety and state law enforcement agencies. These groups can provide important insights and viewpoints that are otherwise easily overlooked. For example, committee members familiar with the topic noted that research could be undertaken to assess whether shipment schedule demands placed on drivers by trucking companies and shippers affect driver behavior and conflict with safe operating practices. Development of such plans needs to include careful consideration of the widest possible set of potential countermeasures and related research topics.

Recommendation 3: OMCHS should initiate a strategic planning effort incorporating the views of the motoring public, the motor carrier industry, commercial motor carrier drivers, manufacturers of commercial motor carriers and equipment, human factors and highway safety experts, and representatives of state highway safety and state law enforcement agencies. The strategic plan should provide a detailed description and justification for specific research tasks, as well as expected outcomes of the research and associated measures of performance.

Finding: OMCHS’s R&D program would benefit from closer integration with other highway safety R&D activities.

OMCHS’s R&D activities do not appear to be deriving the full benefit of other related U.S. DOT highway safety R&D activities, particularly those of FHWA. This could stem from the Office’s R&D focus during the past decade on driver fatigue and related issues in preparation for revising the HOS regulations. Much of that research was mandated by Congress and utilized congressionally designated research contractors. Other past OMCHS research emphasized topics related to the Office’s regulatory mission. As a result, OMCHS has had limited flexibility to coordinate its research more closely with that of other FHWA offices addressing highway safety issues. For example, as noted earlier, FHWA’s RD&T Service Business Unit undertakes highway safety research related to human factors, highway and roadside design, driver visibility, and pedestrians and bicyclists. The FHWA Operations Core Business Unit includes the Intelligent Transportation Systems program, which focuses on information and telecommunications technologies for transportation and related research and implementation issues. The commercial vehicle operations (CVO) portion of that program examines and tests technologies designed to streamline current state

enforcement and motor carrier industry practices. As noted above, NHTSA also has a substantial highway safety research program and staff, although the RTCC is less familiar with that agency’s research program and the opportunities for greater synergy with the OMCHS R&D effort.

Given the range and dispersion of highway safety R&D activities within FHWA, combined with the agency’s limited R&D resources, consideration should be given to combining some of these activities in a single office. Such a move would help leverage financial and human resources that address a key FHWA mission goal.

Recommendation 4: FHWA should encourage and enable closer organizational ties between motor carrier safety R&D and the other departmental research activities related to highway safety R&D and ITS/CVO. FHWA should also evaluate whether its highway safety mission would be better served if all its highway safety R&D activities were located in a single office.

Final Remarks

The committee hopes that this review of R&D activities within OMCHS will prove helpful. We would be pleased to assist FHWA in carrying out the above recommendations, and would be happy to meet with you and OMCHS staff to discuss our findings and recommendations in further detail.


[C. Michael Walton]

Research and Technology Coordinating Committee (FHWA)


1 Heavy trucks have gross vehicle weight in excess of 10,000 pounds.
2 The Relative Contribution of Truck Drivers and Passenger Vehicle Drivers to Truck-Passenger Vehicle Traffic Crashes, The University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute, UMTRI Report 89-25, June, 1998.
3 OMCHS's R&D budget is subject to several reductions or "takedowns." These include funding for the National Advanced Driving Simulator, support for Transportation Research Board activities, and an obligation limit takedown.


C. Michael Walton (NAE), Chairman
Allan AbbottNancy Fitzroy (NAE)
Joel AndersonLarry Goode
Dwight BowerJack Kay
Richard BraunJoe Mahoney
John Breen (NAE)Thomas Smith
Forrest CouncilDavid Spivey
Frank DanchetzDale Stein (NAE)
Hank DittmarDavid Willis
Irwin Feller 


Dennis Judyki, FHWA
Michael Halladay, FHWA
Paul Brennan, FHWA
Robert Davis, FHWA
Gary Woodford, FHWA
Ron Knipling, FHWA
Paul Rothberg, Congressional Research Service


Estimated FY1999 Motor Carrier R&T Expenditures

Category-Focus Area


($ x 000s)


Percent after Takedowns

Regulatory Evaluation and Reform




Compliance and Enforcement




Driver Performance Enhancement




Driver Alertness and Fatigue




Physical Qualifications




Car-Truck Proximity




Hazardous Materials Safety




Crash Causation and Profiling




Miscellaneous/R&T Management/Media




Obligation Limitation Takedown



NADS Support Takedown



TRB Support Takedown



International Programs Takedown



Freight Program Takedown








Source: Based on material provided by OMCHS (addition errors due to rounding)