Pulling the plug

Oct. 13, 2014
FMCSA should stop publishing carriers’ CSA scores

One of the biggest controversies in trucking over the past four years has been the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s decision to make public motor carriers’ performance in most of the Behavior Analysis and Safety Improvement Categories (BASICs) under the Safety Measurement System (SMS). SMS is the heart of FMCSA’s Compliance, Safety, Accountability program.

Despite its flaws, SMS probably is better than the old SafeStat system as an internal targeting tool for enforcement because it exposes specific aspects of driver and vehicle management. In practice, however, it’s unclear how effective CSA has been for targeting interventions. An audit this year by the Dept. of  Transportation’s inspector general found that only 10 states had fully implemented CSA enforcement interventions.

But the truly big issue is publishing CSA metrics for all to see. Even before the program went live, some carriers and technology suppliers cautioned shippers and brokers that if they hired a carrier with a BASIC alert, they were putting themselves at risk of a lawsuit in the event of a fatal crash.

FMCSA did little to counter these warnings. As part of her campaign to “raise the bar” for trucking safety, FMCSA Administrator Anne Ferro openly encouraged the supply chain to use CSA metrics in carrier selection so trucking operations would face economic pressure.  This mind-set, which Ferro maintained right up to her departure in August, contradicted the formal disclaimer FMCSA posted regarding SMS as part of a legal settlement in 2011.

SMS suffers from too many data quality and methodological flaws, so it’s basically worthless as a resource for choosing the safest carrier. SMS doesn’t even seem to meet the federal government’s own standards for data quality.

According to guidelines adopted by the White House Office of Management and Budget in 2002, the quality of data disseminated by federal agencies is defined by three issues: utility, objectivity and integrity.

By integrity, OMB means security—protecting the information from unauthorized access and corruption or falsification. SMS probably passes this test, although given that key elements of the SMS methodology rely on self-reported information from Form MCS-150, data integrity arguably is suspect.

Objectivity focuses on whether the information “is being presented in an accurate, clear, complete, and unbiased manner, and as a matter of substance, is accurate, reliable, and unbiased,” OMB says. Objectivity issues are too great to discuss here, but consider, for example, the peer grouping of carriers that operate in vastly different applications or environments. Or what about carriers that happen to operate in states where enforcement is especially strict on speeding?

As for utility, how could a shipper or broker possibly determine whether a carrier is safe based on a golden triangle given the problems with objectivity? The one BASIC that arguably could be useful is the Crash Indicator, but that is hidden from public view—and appropriately so—due to concerns over states’ varying performance in reporting crashes and the lack of information on crash preventability.

FMCSA can’t withhold information requested through proper procedures, but the agency doesn’t have to publicize data that isn’t fit for public consumption.

Beltway Briefs

  • FMCSA is considering issuing guidance that could allow healthcare professionals to use technology, such as videoconferencing, to assist certified medical examiners in conducting driver medical exams.
  • American Moving & Storage Assn. sought an exemption from the 14-hour rule to allow its members to move their trucks to safer and more secure locations—up to 75 mi. or 90 min. —in situations when drivers exceed the window for driving before a job is completed.
  • FMCSA has extended through the end of this year a test of using documentation rather than on-site visits to conduct new entrant safety audits.
  • Scott Darling, chief counsel of FMCSA, will serve as the agency’s acting administrator until President Obama chooses a successor to Anne Ferro, who left the agency Aug. 22.
About the Author

Avery Vise | Contributing editor

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