When Robin Hutcheson took the helm of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration in January of 2022, she set out on a six-month tour to learn as much as she could about the U.S. trucking industry and the chief issues of concern for the industries FMCSA is tasked with regulating, including and especially motor carriers and professional drivers.
“My first six months of the job, I went everywhere and talked to everyone and tried to get every experience that was going to help me understand what goes on outside these 4 walls at the DOT headquarters building,” she said.
That included more than one ride-along with professional drivers as they performed all of the daily tasks that come with the job: driving, of course, but also waiting at shipping and receiving facilities to pick up or drop off a load, using all of the various in-cab technologies required either by an employer or FMCSA itself, and of course searching for a safe place to park at the end of it all.
Hutcheson relayed that story — and what she took away from those experiences — in an expansive conversation with NTI President & CEO Leah Shaver on the Taking the Hire Road show this week, where she also discussed her top priorities as head of FMCSA and provided updates on some of the workforce-specific initiatives the agency is working on under her leadership.
Watch or listen to the full interview at the top of this post. You can also listen to the full interview on your preferred podcast app.
We’ve included a few highlights from the interview below. Have any feedback? Send us a note at NTIAlerts@driverwages.com.
FMCSA’s role in 2023
While FMCSA’s Congressional mandate is rooted in regulating safety, Hutcheson said she sees FMCSA’s role as landing at the intersection of “safety, economic strength, equity, climate, and transformation.”
“I’m grateful to have the opportunity to sit in a seat with so much impact,” she said. “[Trucking] is such an important part of the American experience and the American economy.”
Women of Trucking Advisory Board
Established late last year, the Women of Trucking Advisory Board exists to provide perspectives for FMCSA to consider in developing policies to make trucking a more attractive career choice for women. The board has held one meeting so far, with more scheduled. Topics of discussion, which the agency will consider when developing regulatory policies, include training, mentorship, education, outreach, “and how we bring more women into this industry,” said Hutcheson.
“The first topic we brought to the [Board] was a discussion of the barriers women face when in the industry and that also may be barriers to women to be recruited into the industry,” she said. Much of that discussion revolved around sexual assault and sexual violence against women. “It’s controversial to name it, but we feel it is important to talk about it with women who can advise us how we make the profession safer and more secure for anybody who wants to be in the industry.”
Reaching younger generations with apprenticeship program
FMCSA also launched late last year a pilot program, at the direction of Congress, to allow CDL holders under the age of 21 to work in interstate operations alongside a more seasoned trainer. The Safe Driver Apprenticeship Program needs three types of participants: Motor carriers or private fleets, experienced drivers, and apprentices, and the agency is trying to grow the interest of and participation numbers for all three. “The goal is to recruit younger people into the industry, so [the program] needs to be a good experience with an experienced drivers that helps them be coached and have a lasting career.”
To learn more about the Safe Driver Apprenticeship Program and consider participation, visit this link.
‘Huge, vested interest in recruiting younger people’
Beyond the under-21 apprenticeship program, the agency is also leveraging grant money opportunities to implement programs intended to reach younger people and attract them into trucking careers, partially by helping fund trucking programs at colleges, vocational and tech schools, and more, and to streamline the process of receiving a CDL. “We have a huge, vested interest in this,” she said. “Drivers who’ve been on the road the longest are the safest. It’s [part of] our safety mission to recruit younger drivers and keep them driving… and they become the safest drivers on the road.”
A ‘one-DOT’ approach to expanding truck parking
“Truck parking is almost daily somewhere on my agenda,” Hutcheson said. It’s a top priority at the U.S. DOT as a whole, said Hutcheson, but the work to expand truck parking will take work by multiple DOT agencies. “We understand at FMCSA we are best positioned to describe the nature of the problem and the depth of the problem because we are so engaged with [the trucking] industry.”
The onus of actually building out truck parking, however, lies with the Federal Highway Administration, she said, and the two agencies are working in tandem on the issue of truck parking.
She noted the agency has provided grant money to states to test truck parking availability systems to “harness technology to ease the burden on the driver, so you know where you’re going to rest next.”
“For us, it [touches] underlying issues of job quality, of safety, of longevity in the industry,” Hutcheson said. “If we eliminate the number of times a driver might become tired or distracted or park in an unsafe place, we’re at the headwaters of safety and solving problems before they become problems. What I would say to the driver is we are with you, we understand the problem, and we’re working on making it better.”
Driver pay’s relationship to safety
Lastly, NTI’s interview touched on an FMCSA study researching driver compensation’s relationship to driver safety, which Hutcheson said also works in tandem with the agency’s ongoing study of detention time’s relationship to safety topics. The agency is working to determine “why [CMV drivers] are involved in crashes to begin with,” she said.
“Maybe they were speeding, maybe they were tired — but we have to look at why they were speeding and why they were tired. Could it be they had to wait a long time to get their load — detention — and had to make up the lost time and that lead to speeding [because they are] paid by the mile.”
Translating those studies into policy, she said, “will be borne out of the results of the study based on those fundamental questions.”