Julie Cirillo speaks Out
Exclusive interview with the Office of Motor Carriers & Highway Safety’s new program manager.

On April 21, Land Line editors, Sandi Soendker and Ruth Jones, interviewed Julie Cirillo at her office at DOT in Washington, DC. FHWA spokesman Dave Longo was also on hand for the dialog that progressed through a dozen hot trucking topics. In Part One, Cirillo details her tough position on enforcement, talks frankly about accident causation research, and offers bold assertions on speed management.

Land Line: The three-year safety action plan underscores tougher enforcement. When you are talking about tougher enforcement and compliance, where will your emphasis be? Motor carrier compliance reviews or more inspections?

Cirillo: We do relatively few roadside inspections. Most of the roadside inspections are done by the states. We have a motor carrier safety assistance program (MCSAP) where, under a formula, the states get money to do enforcement at the state level. I would say 70 to 80 percent of that MCSAP money goes to pay the salaries of men and women who do roadside inspections. But the states, in concert with our philosophy that you deliver safety at a state level, are relatively free to adjust what it is they need to do to better attack the problems that they have in their own state. So, if a state wants to do more compliance reviews they can do that with MCSAP money. If they wanted to do only roadside inspections, they can do that with the MCSAP funds. Again, we encourage the states to also look at the performance of carriers and the best mechanisms to address those issues and then to assign their resources accordingly.

Land Line: Are you encouraging them to do more inspections?

Cirillo: We're encouraging them to do the things that they think they need to do to address the problems that they have. They do a plan every year; we work with them on the plan. We provide guidance, but we don't tell them, you have to do more inspections, or you have to do more compliance reviews, or you have to do these things.

We essentially provide information, guidance, best practices and try to work with them to apply those to what their problems are. It works very well doing it that way. So, we don't really have any issues with having to tell the states you must do this.

Now there are some instances where we strongly suggest the states do specific things. As a result of the crash that we had in Illinois, the administrator has written to every governor and said here was a driver who was a risk-taking driver. There was no reason that man should have had a commercial driver license and he had one because they have a provision in Illinois where if you get a ticket you can go to traffic school or something and then you can still drive. They give you a temporary license back.

We are trying to address those things specifically in an attempt to get the judiciary in the states to recognize what happens on a private driver license. If you get a speeding ticket in your car, you're likely to get a speeding ticket in your truck. Also, drivers who demonstrate consistent risk behaviors should not be allowed to drive commercial vehicles.

Land Line: About roadside inspections. Are we looking for more, less or looking for about the same?

Cirillo: Well, I would say we're probably looking at about the same. The funding for MCSAP is set by legislation. It's essentially authorized at a particular level, so it's not going to be reduced. I would have a sense that they would be pretty much the same unless something is happening in the state and they decide they want to do more compliance reviews, in which case, a state may see compliance reviews go up and inspections go down.

North Carolina, as an example, has just done a major look at their truck safety. People in North Carolina will see inspections go up because they looked at their problems and decided one of the best ways was to do more roadside inspections. That's a function of the state. The governor and the head of the DOT determine we have a problem. We need to do something about it and here's what we're going to do.

Dave Longo: Most likely, they will stay the same as they have remained kind of constant over the past several years, hovering around the two million mark. You'll see that consistent over the next year.

Land Line: According to your safety action plan, the value of the inspections and the safety returns you get from them appear to have reached a leveling off place.

Cirillo: That really relates to Level I inspections where you're doing the under vehicle type inspection for defects which have been identified as relatively minor causes... although it could always be a contributor. I think if, in fact, the Level I basically stays, they may see increases in the Level II and IIIs where you're focusing on the driver which is a significant part of the problem. So, you could see some mixing, but total inspections will probably stay pretty much the same.

Land Line: In your safety action plan, part of your plan management talks about speed management. According to the draft, federal highway is working with state agencies to post realistic limits. What do you consider realistic limits? Would they be differential limits or uniform limits?

Cirillo: Well, I don't know if the department has a position on differential speed limits. I did some research on speed years and years ago. This has been done by a variety of people, both on our side and NHTSA side. Essentially what my research found and what previous people's research found and what subsequent people's research found is the more you have differential speed the more you have accidents.

If people are going too slow, you have accidents. If people are going too fast, you have accidents. Regardless of the speed limits, regardless of the type of road you're traveling. So, if you're traveling on a rural highway where the speed limit is 50, you observe this phenomenon. If you're driving on the interstate where the speed limit is 70 or 75 you observe this phenomenon. If you're driving on four-lane main rural highways where the speed limit is 65 you observe the same phenomenon.

Our position here with speeds is that we have fallen into a situation where for a variety of reasons we are setting speed limits that are not realistic. They are setting speed limits that are too low. We're legislating them and once you legislate speed limits, invariably the speed limit is at about the 50th percentile. So, here you have a traffic regulation that's enforceable by law and half of the people are exceeding it when you put it in place. That makes no sense to us. So, what we're trying to do is get the states to agree that they will set speed limits in accordance with the 85th percentile, which is where most people travel. Most people are sane. Most people will not put themselves in undue hazard. You set a speed limit where 85 percent of the people driving at or below that speed limit and you take the upper 15 percent and you enforce, excuse my French, the hell out of it. The people who are exceeding the speed limit must understand–this is the speed limit. It's not an advisory. It's not something like "well, maybe you should think about as you're driving." It's not a speed trap. We're not here to collect fines; this is a speed limit. This is something that is safe and reasonable for you to travel at and if you don't, if you exceed it, that means you are doing something that is unsafe and we're going to give you a ticket and we're going to fine you.

Now, that is a significant change from the mindset we have had. We have states that have laws on the books that say you can't give somebody a ticket unless they're going ten miles over the speed limit! Well, then it's not a speed limit. It's a speed something-or-other. We have deteriorated the value of speed limits and now find the disregard for speed limits is spilling over into other traffic control devices–disregard of red lights, disregard of stop signs.

If we have any hope of moving the population back to where it ought to be, we have to set reasonable speed limits. Fiftieth percentile speed limit is not reasonable. It's like me saying if we only license you when you're 26, everybody would be safer because 26-year-olds are more responsible than 16-year-olds. That's true, but is that acceptable? A 50th percentile speed limit is not acceptable. So we're trying to get states or communities really to set 85th percentile speeds. Get the police to enforce it and get the judges to carry it through in terms of collecting fines.

Land Line: The plan says the objective of this field demonstration, variable speed limit demonstration project, is to ensure that all vehicles travel at or about the same speed.

Cirillo: Right. That's different than setting rational speed limits. Two separate things. One is to establish the speed limits that we're setting to have some meaning. If you can establish that then you can go to what we call variable speed limits so that you can change the speed limit based on conditions, based on traffic, based on incidents, based on work zones. Since the speed limit now has some meaning, people will react to the speed limit. So, if I have work zone ahead three miles upstream I can change the speed limit and the whole traffic stream will slow down together as opposed to some people slowing down and other people running right to the work zone and the turbulence that it causes.

You can only do that if people have some confidence that the speed limit is really a speed limit. We think we have an altruism that can deal with the variable speed limits for a variety of conditions; increase traffic volume, etc. But today, if we put it out there, people don't pay attention. I don't know where you're from–but 55 mph speed limit on the beltway? Who drives 55 mph on a beltway? If you do you're gonna get run over.


"I have developed some goals and activities and focuses for the Office of Motor Carrier and Highway Safety. As you know for several years we've had a three-pronged approach to motor carrier safety enforcement–outreach education, partnering and technology. We're not abandoning that, we still think this is viable, but we are readjusting resource allocation–particularly those resources in the field safety investigative resources–away from the outreach and partnering activities towards enforcement.

"We are increasing enforcement. We are taking advantage of the authorities given to us in TEA-21 to target at-risk carriers. Doing more compliance reviews on carriers that we've determined to be at risk, based on their performance, is not something we've pulled out of the air. It's based on their performance. We are taking advantage of the provisions of the legislation to raise the fine limitations so that they understand we're serious about compliance with the safety regulations.

"Our goal is the reduction of accidents, injuries and fatalities. We think we can achieve that...We believe most people comply with the regulations, but there's a group of people who don't, they are our target and we want them to know we are serious about getting them to comply. If they insist on noncompliance we'll put them out of service.

"We will still have outreach and education. Most of that work will be done from headquarters, from our resource centers and by the state director in each division office.

"Of course, we're very committed to technology... information technology to help us better identify carriers and better utilize the movement of data among states and from the states to us. Also, safety technologies in vehicle displays, accident avoidance systems, those types of things.

"One of our main programs is the PRISM program (see sidebar) which is the activity we have with the state that couples registration at the state level with increased enforcement, graduated penalties all the way through the removal of operating authority by the state. We have five states that are participating right now–Iowa, Oregon, Indiana, Minnesota and Colorado. We have funding and will try to bring in about five states per year during the course of TEA-21 and really try to focus kind of a systematic approach to carrier operation and compliance reviews and penalties. We're also going to bring in information on the driver and their violations of traffic laws because we think the driver, in addition to demonstrating risk by noncompliance of motor carrier regulations, demonstrates risk taking by noncompliance of traffic regulations. So we're working with the enforcement community and the judiciary to get that information into the system so that we can also target high-risk drivers in our activities.

"That's kind of in a nutshell where we are. We have put together a draft safety action plan that is out for review by a million people. It identifies the things that we want to do in the next six months to three years."

What is the PRISM program?

The Performance and Registration Information Systems Management program (formerly referred to as the Commercial Vehicle Information System (CVIS) began as a mandate by Congress to explore the potential of linking the commercial vehicle registration process to motor carrier safety. The program links DOT's network with motor vehicle registration and licensing systems in order to one, determine the safety fitness of the motor carrier prior to issuing license plates; and two, cause the carrier to improve its safety performance through an improvement process and where necessary, the application of registration sanctions.