Congress isn't much for bigger government, but last week it added to the roster of federal agencies by creating a separate Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration to regulate and enforce truck safety.

"There was a lot of political will behind it," Jackie Gillan, vice president of Advocates for Highway Safety, said of the bill that passed late last Friday. The trucking industry, the Department of Transportation inspector general, and the Clinton administration also supported the idea of a new, higher-profile regulator at the DOT.

"We wanted a separate motor carrier administration with a core focus on safety," said Walter McCormick, president and chief executive of the American Trucking Association.

For the first time, the trucking industry's regulator will have an administrator who is nominated by the president and confirmed by the Senate. The Office of Motor Carriers that it replaces was part of the Federal Highway Administration at the DOT.

The legislation grew out of a stew of problems with how the OMC carried out its duties. It was criticized for inadequacies in issuing and enforcing safety rules, its keeping of records on safety violations, its fining of violators, and engaging in inappropriate funding and lobbying activities.

Adding to the momentum for change were several high-profile truck accidents, and a prediction that fatalities from accidents involving large trucks would increase to 6,000 next year.

All trucking regulation was handled by the now-defunct Interstate Commerce Commission before 1966. That year the OMC was created as an office within the Federal Highway Administration. The view quickly developed among safety advocates and some members of Congress that trucking regulation took a back seat to handing out federal highway money at the FHWA.

"There are some good trucking companies and ones that are not," said Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.), who crusaded to remedy this regulatory problem. "There has been too close a [industry] relationship with the OMC. The OMC gave too many contracts out to the industry to do research. You just had too close of a relationship."

Wolf, chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee on transportation, also fingered top officials at the OMC for conducting a lobbying campaign with the trucking industry to oppose moving the agency to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). McCormick said the American Trucking Association long had espoused creating a separate truck safety agency.

After a year of exposing OMC problems through hearings, two inspector general reports, a General Accounting Office study, an investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board, and a review of the OMC commissioned by the DOT, everyone decided the best thing was to start from scratch and do it quickly.

In the span of about two weeks earlier this month, the House and the Senate agreed on a compromise bill that created the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, an agency that will be on par with the Federal Aviation Administration and other agencies that concentrate on safety in boating, railroads, and oil and gas pipelines.

The legislation has dozens of provisions that will strengthen the enforcement of state and federal truck safety laws. States will get more money for roadside inspections. New trucking companies will have to prove they know safety basics, such as drug testing for drivers, and maintenance requirements. They also will undergo compliance reviews. Foreign carriers will be put out of service if they are operating illegally in the United States, while inspections at the Mexican border will be beefed up.

Tougher requirements were added for holding--and keeping after a violation--commercial drivers' licenses. Information about drivers with infractions on their personal licenses--such as revocations or suspensions--will now go onto their records. Carriers that don't pay their fines will be put out of service.

NHTSA will gather data to determine the causes of crashes and how to prevent them, building on its current expertise. Safety proponents also are hoping that the DOT will delegate to NHTSA rule-making authority for safety maintenance on trucks already on the road, in addition to authority it already has to issue rules for new trucks.

McCormick said the bill is the culmination of 15 years of effort on the part of the industry to get its own regulator, and validation that the "responsible" carriers are credible on safety issues.

One important issue the legislation did not address was how federal enforcement authorities can use electronic information gathered in the cabs of trucks on the road. These devices, which are similar to the cockpit voice recorders or flight data recorders found on airplanes, are being installed in trucks, and data from them could be used to double-check the paper logs that companies keep to record how many hours their drivers are on the road.

The trucking industry opposed requiring electronic recorders and considers its exclusion a victory. Safety groups said the omission leaves the door open for the agency to set standards on how the information can be used in the trucking industry. the DOT, in its comments to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a sponsor of the bill, said there needs to be more debate on the safety implications of extending the privacy policies developed for airliners--where the information is not used for enforcement purposes--to trucks.

Proponents of the new agency, which will open its doors on Jan. 1 with the transfer of some 700 employees to FMCSA, say it will only be as good as its top leadership and if cultural changes can made.

"If you put a dodo in or an advocate for the trucking industry, then I don't know," said Wolf. "I hope they appoint someone from the enforcement area who is honest with no economic ties to the trucking industry."

Julie Cirillo, acting director of the old OMC, said the changes in the headquarters structure of the agency already have been proposed to Transportation Secretary Rodney E. Slater. "It's not just moving boxes around," said Cirillo, who isn't sure where her own box will be come Jan. 1.