Lawmakers Continuing To Question The Effectiveness, Fairness Of CSA; Trucking Industry Still Wants Changes

Kevin Jones

WASHINGTON — Congress once again is looking into the CSA program, and the trucking industry once again has sent representatives to the Capital to point out shortcomings and ask for changes.

The House Highways and Transit Subcommittee convened Sept.13 and heard from the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, the trucking industry, law enforcement and safety advocates on the Compliance, Safety, Accountability program. The discussion featured a number of issues, some of which were already on the table as the system was being developed, while others have emerged over the nearly two years that CSA has been in place.

“The intentions behind CSA are good, but it is not a perfect system,” said Rep. John J. Duncan Jr., a chairman of the committee, in opening the hearing.

Among the concerns, Duncan cited the lack of Safety Measurement System data for as many 300,000 registered carriers, and inconsistent data coming in from the states.

“A comprehensive understanding of a carrier’s safety is difficult to achieve with this lack of data,” he said. “The SMS methodology is only as good as the data flowing into the system.”

Duncan also questioned whether the system was fair to small carriers, whether the scores are an accurate indicator of crash risk, and whether brokers and shippers are being placed in a precarious legal position by doing business with carriers that show high scores in the system’s BASICs.

The Tennessee Republican didn’t have to go outside of his district to find a trucking company owner who’s not at all pleased with CSA.

“Based on Colonial’s experience, I’m convinced the CSA program, one, doesn’t accurately measure carrier safety performance and, two, progressive intervention goals aren’t being realized.,” said Ruby McBride, vice president of Knoxville based Colonial Freight Systems, representing the Alliance for Safe, Efficient and Competitive Truck Transportation.

Despite a very low preventable accident rate for the fleet’s 250 or so owner-operators, Colonial was the subject of an FMCSA review last year because of its Fatigued Driving BASIC, which was in the 80th percentile and above the threshold for agency intervention. McBride suggested the BASIC score was about paperwork rather than safety.

The company also was surprised FMCSA gave only a few days’ advance notice of the on-site review, and didn’t follow the progressive corrective steps it touts as a key piece of the CSA program. Additionally, she continued, Colonial has been losing business opportunities because FMCSA encourages shippers to review SMS scores when selecting carriers.

Most alarming, she explained, was that a successful trucking company that’s been in business since 1943 could have been shut down over a compliance matter having little to do with the carrier’s safety record. The agency left Colonial’s Satisfactory Safety Rating unchanged, but the carrier is still unfairly “branded as high risk” because of CSA, she concluded.

“We have first-hand experience of CSA’s anti-competitive effects,” she said. “We ask Congress to stop FMCSA from publishing misleading SMS scores and urging shippers and brokers to rely on them.”

Indeed, shippers and brokers would rather not be in the carrier rating business, testified Bruce Johnson, director of carrier services at C. H. Robinson and a member of the board of directors at the Transport Intermediaries Association.

CSA has exposed third parties to an increasing number of lawsuits based on carrier selection, he explained. The brokers group wants FMCSA to move forward quickly with its plan to tie safety ratings to CSA, drawing a “bright line differentiation” as to which carriers are safe and which are not.

In the meantime, he called on FMCSA to feature safety ratings prominently along with the SMS data display on the agency website, and to remove language encouraging shippers to review their carriers’ data.

“Tremendous confusion exits in the industry about the risks of carrier eligibility and selection, and what the BASIC data and Safety Ratings mean for those hiring motor carriers,” he said. “Every day that goes by without a fair and accurate Safety Fitness Determination, the transportation industry will continue to be negatively impacted.”

The American Trucking Associations used the forum to again call for changes to help CSA achieve its safety goals.

“ATA has been supportive of the objective of CSA, to reduce commercial motor vehicle crashes, injuries and fatalities, since the program’s inception. However, ATA has significant concerns with the program in its current form,” Scott Mugno, vice president of safety for FedEx Ground Package System, said on behalf of ATA.

Mugno cited issues in data weakness that prevent FMCSA from having enough information to properly evaluate carriers, as well as methodology issues that count all crashes — regardless of prevent ability — against a carrier, as among the most significant issues with CSA.

He noted that FedEx Ground is above the threshold in the Driver Fitness BASIC.

“Many ATA member carriers with excellent safety records and low crash rates like FedEx Ground find themselves singled out due to high CSA scores that erroneously reflect unsafe performance,” Mugno said.

He suggested several steps FMCSA needs to take to fix the program.

“First, FMCSA must acknowledge that CSA scores are often not a reliable predictor of future crash risk. Second, the agency must confirm that CSA’s highest priority should be to focus on the least safe carriers. And finally,” he said, “FMCSA must establish a specific plan to develop and implement the changes necessary to ensure that the system functions as intended.”

The Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association provided written comments to the committee, saying that CSA has serious, fundamental flaws that ignore safety as a true goal — and because of its apparent bias against small trucking companies.

“Instead of having all motor carriers strive for a perfect safety rating, this system has them all competing with each other for the highest ranking within peer groups. This belies the idea that the system’s objective is really about safety,” said Todd Spencer, executive vice president of OOIDA.

The association has contended that CSA scoring is prejudicial, arbitrary and disproportionately punishes small businesses.

“A carrier is only as good as the next guy, and in order to succeed you must first fail — only fail less than everyone else in the same safety grouping,” said Spencer. “Because 90 percent of trucking is made up of small businesses, this has serious implications on truly knowing who is a safe carrier.”

Also, the public availability of scores contradicts the self-help objective of the program, again begging the question of whether safety is the priority, OOIDA stated. Carriers are meant to make improvements to their operations based on scores.

“FMCSA needs to show their program actually can identify carriers that are really unsafe as opposed to just running up numbers on the ‘alphabet soup’ of regulations they have on their books,” Spencer said. “The system operates from the premise that every trucker is the bad guy, and this is a flawed approach for creating legitimate safety statistics or improving safety.”

Those on the roadside doing the truck inspections also have some concerns about CSA, yet consider the program a qualified success so far, according to testimony from a representative of the Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance.

“From the enforcement community’s point of view, CSA is working,” said David Palmer, assistant chief of the Texas Department of Public Safety.

Palmer testified that compliance and safety go hand-in-hand, and that carriers can’t decide to ignore regulations — or CSA scores — that they think have little to do with crash prevention.

“We agree that factors shown to have a high correlation to crash risk are, obviously, very important,” Palmer said. “However . . . a motor carrier’s habit of noncompliance with any safety regulation, whether tied directly to crash risk or not, indicates either a lack of understanding or a disregard for that particular regulation or set of regulations. A carrier that does not understand, or actively chooses to disregard, certain regulations is not one with a strong safety culture.”

CVSA also believes it is “critical” for FMCSA to address the crash accountability question as quickly and comprehensively as possible.

“Quite frankly, CSA has brought commercial vehicle safety to the forefront of industry and enforcement like no other program in my time before it,” Palmer said.

FMCSA also sees progress, and, as promised, has made regular changes to improve CSA — often based on industry input, explained Administrator Anne Ferro.

“I feel strongly that over the last few years, FMCSA has made significant progress in implementing CSA and improving the efficiency and effectiveness of our program. The net result is improved safety in commercial motor carrier operations,” Ferro said. “We are continuing to build on these successes as we finalize the program, through data-driven decision making and processes as transparent and inclusive as possible.”

E-mail: kevinj@thetrucker.com

Source: The Trucker News

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