Based on the grading by truck fleet executives, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s (FMCSA) Compliance, Safety, Accountability (CSA) safetycompliance program at best ranks a “Gentleman’s C.” Put another way, fleets rank the two-year-old program highly for all its intents and purposes—but poorly for its forethought and for how slowly its deficits are being addressed yet alone corrected. Indeed, at the moment trucking is awaiting final word of “planned improvements” FMCSA will make to CSA. (See box, page 32.) The agency announced in late March that it will modify CSA’s BASICs. Of course, it remains to be seen how fleets will score CSA after these changes are implemented.
Fleet managers who spoke to Fleet Owner about CSA scored the program a 5 or a 6 based on a scale of 1 to 10, and one trucking association safety expert said its members collectively would give it a 6.5. Yet other fleet execs declined to comment, choosing to reserve judgment until after FMCSA has released its aforementioned improvements.
“I’d give it a 5,’” says Dale Corum, operations manager for Louisville, KY-based carrier Mercer Transportation. “As a whole, the program is a good one in its aim to create safer highways by addressing issues that needed to be addressed.”
However, Corum says Mercer, which runs a 100% owner-operator fleet, is not at all happy with some of the impacts CSA has had on its drivers. “There were violations under the old compliance system that resulted in essentially slaps on the wrist, but today for the same offense [drivers] get assigned points against them that will stay with them for two to three years.
“What’s more,” he continues, “we terminate owner-operators who reach our self-imposed point threshold. We do like the fact the points follow the driver, so not only is the company hurt by their actions [but so are the drivers]. We include the points given drivers [when conducting] pre-hiring checks.”
Corum says another inequity that hits drivers very hard is that under CSA, there are no mechanisms for them to fight an unsatisfactory write-up. “We have had load-securement issues—such as straps too loose where they touch a load—and these affect our overall score in the CSA BASICs. And a write-up often comes down to the very individual view of a situation by a given roadside inspector—there are no specifics to it. It’s very subjective and we have to wonder if people are trained enough to make these rulings.”
Another area of concern for Corum is what he calls “pile-on” write-ups. “We’re finding that if one piece—say of the brake system—is not working, the inspector will write up the whole system. Or even if a pigtail is loose, they’ll write it up as all lights are out. They do claim they are working on this, but right now this piling on can cancel a guy right out of our own point system.”
He says citations for “unsafe driving” are yet another bugaboo.
“Drivers are getting warnings for being one to five mph over the speed limit, but now a point is assessed for that.” As Corum sees it, CSA “does not yet reflect the realities of what is going on with the fleet.” In particular, he points to the inequity of CSA’s peer grouping of carriers. “We’d fare better [in the rankings] if we were being compared with other flatbed carriers. Instead, because the peer groups are created based on miles run, we are lumped in with van carriers, which have few if any cargo-securement issues. To be fair, the peer groups should be built around equipment run or type of operation. And there’s been no indication this will change.”
Corum points out that Mercer “agrees with FMCSA’s intent with CSA and on the whole, it is a good program.” But he takes major points off for the inequities of the enforcement that goes with it. “We do embrace CSA. It aims to eliminate those who do not measure up—and they need to be gone. But on the other hand,” he adds, “it shouldn’t involve making rules that make life difficult for professional, safe drivers.”
Herb Schmidt, president of Joplin, MO-based Con-way Truckload, says “at this stage” he gives CSA a 6 on the 1 to 10 scale. “The program has the potential to be far better than it is now,” he states. “My grade weighs everything about the program, including its subjective nature and the threat it raises of vicarious liability for carriers.”
According to Schmidt, the downside of CSA starts with the penalties assigned drivers and carriers “regardless of who is at fault in an incident. A driver struck by another vehicle can go against the driver and carrier [instead of it being ruled a non-preventable accident as in the past].”
He says he has heard FMCSA’s view on this is that fleets are being compared to others in their peer group “through the law of averages” rather than viewing each accident as preventable vs. not. “Then you must consider what is an accurate peer group? Instead of having groups built around the type of operation, everyone—linehaul and regional carriers—gets lumped in together. That’s a major flaw right there.
“FMCSA could have saved itself and the industry a lot of trouble,” Schmidt continues, “had it not created the program behind the smoke of a mysterious veil. They did not think through the unintended consequences, again, [by] not soliciting the views of those regulated.”
State-by-state enforcement is also an issue for Con-way. “For example,” says Schmidt, “New Mexico and Indiana only have to have reasonable cause to pull a driver over for speeding— then that becomes the violation if no other problem is found. All this leads to less accuracy [in finding violations] and thus a less effective program, which benefits no one.”
But there may be little or nothing that FMCSA can do about the threat of vicarious liability raised by the new program. Schmidt explains that this is defined as “the imposition of liability on one party for the conduct of another” and says the upshot is that shippers and brokers now “must be extremely concerned about hiring a carrier or that carrier’s driver with a substandard CSA score.”
He says the thinking is the “negligent” hiring of such a carrier strengthens a plaintiff’s case against a shipper or broker in a court of law.
Doug Cook, vice president of safety for Chattanooga- based truckload carrier Covenant Transport, gives CSA “about a 5” on the 1 to 10 scale. “True,” he says, “there are good and bad points to the program. On the one hand, it has caused the trucking industry to better review the in-cab performance of drivers. It has helped identify where the strengths and weaknesses are in the management of that in-cab behavior, and it has led fleets to look at better tools to accomplish this, such as onboard recorders for electronic hours-of-service logkeeping.
He reports that about a year ago, Covenant began replacing paper logbooks with electronic onboard recorders. “The change was a challenge at first, but once drivers got used to them, they could see the advantage of not having to deal with paper logs anymore. These recorders take the human-error factor out of the driver-fatigue BASIC and so drivers avoid incurring minor violations that can add up.”
Cook says having to deal with all of CSA’s BASICs has led Covenant “to look at our management style and what we are managing. We’re looking at everything more closely and raising our awareness and that of our drivers to put them more in touch with the new reality of CSA.
“And it is good to see their interest in being held accountable for their actions vs. how things worked in the past,” he continues. “That drivers are now responsible, too, for the carrier’s ranking helped us sell the whole program. They know we are all going down the same path and we must all do better.
“It is important that FMCSA review the criteria for its point-based system and make sure it truly reflects that the ‘punishment fits the crime.’ Overall,” Cook adds, “with CSA we will eventually see safer highways. That’s the very positive piece of the picture to keep in mind.”
Speaking for the Truckload Carriers Assn., David Heller, director of safety and policy, says its membership would give CSA at best a 6.5. “CSA is a good thing,” he asserts. “Because of it, fleets have better access to safety data than ever, and they are using that data to improve their standing with FMCSA and their safety performance. In short, fleet managers are finding new ways to get things properly in line.”
On the other hand, Heller says the membership wants to see the issue of crash accountability—preventable vs. nonpreventable accidents—addressed post haste. “Fleets are being penalized for crashes that are not their fault,” he explains. “FMCSA has taken a step back on this and will be re-examining preventability and causability of crashes.”
However, he cautions fleet owners and managers not to hold their breath in the expectation of any quick fixes to CSA’s issues outlined here. “You cannot put a timeline to changes by FMCSA. It is simply not a fast-paced environment there when looking to correct problems.
“CSA,” Heller adds, “will get better. But fleets can’t wait for the issues to be ironed out. They have to live with the program, flaws and all, right now, day in and day out.”
Read more: Fine-tuning CSA