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How Does the FMCSA Work?

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We often speak and write of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) as if it were a single entity, but in practical terms the agency is not always so unified.

FMCSA has a network of regional offices that do much of the agency’s work, plus over half of FMCSA’s total budget goes into the Motor Carrier Safety Assistance Program (MCSAP), which partially funds state and local programs of various kinds. Ideally, all the different programs and sub-agencies that operate under FMCSA’s umbrella operate in the same way by the same rules so that all carriers have a level playing field and a consistent set of expectations wherever in the company they occupy.

But differences in interpretation of the rules are inevitable and there is no established process to discover and reconcile discrepancies. The Department of Transportation does not conduct audits of how well state and local agencies enact its policies. People who believe a state or local body has ruled against their carriers in error can appeal, but the appeals process is handled entirely within the state, which does not help if the state authorities have misunderstood the rule in the first place.

The result is that some states are much harsher on issues such as speeding than others, so that carriers operating in those states end up with poorer official safety and compliance records than similar carriers that operate exactly the same way in less rigorous states. Further, because these jurisdictional variations result from differences in interpretation, not differences in the regulations themselves, there is no way for anyone in the industry to look up the regional differences and adjust their practices so as to stay on the right side of the authorities.

Curiously, the same lack of review and feedback systems in FMCSA, and especially within the MCSAP, also makes it harder for the agency to be sure its efforts work as designed. The same data that could let the agency know whether regulatory changes actually lead to better outcomes could also let agency leaders know about enforcement discrepancies that need to be resolved.

For example, while there are those willing to speak out on regulation changes, such as Hours of Service guidelines, how those regulations get enforced is often ignored. Perhaps that should change.

For FMCSA, as for the rest of us, it’s not so much what you say as how you say it. 


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