A highways and transit subcommittee hearing chaired by U.S. Rep. John J. Duncan, Jr. (R-TN) this week illuminated the rising tensions between the trucking industry and the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s (FMSCA) Compliance, Safety, Accountability (CSA) program designed to help identify operators with the highest crash risk.

“Perhaps the single biggest problem with the CSA methodology is that it measures motor carriers on all crashes they are involved in, regardless of fault,” said Scott Mugno, VP-safety for FedEx Ground Package System in testimony given on behalf of the American Trucking Associations (ATA) trade group.

“Intuitively, at-fault crashes are the best measures of safety performance. However, FMCSA measures carriers based on these crashes and those they did not cause nor could have prevented,” he stated. “In other words, a carrier that is rear-ended while stopped at a red light is perceived as being just as safe/unsafe as one that rear ends another motorist or crosses a median and strikes another vehicle head-on.”

Mungo noted that ATA has called on FMCSA to establish a process to re-evaluate crash accountability and modify the CSA methodology for the last three years, with what the group calls little result.

“Just over a month ago, FMCSA announced that it would be spending another year studying the issue before developing a corresponding solution and that solution may not be implemented until months afterwards, if at all,” he said. “[We’re] frustrated by the delays in resolving this fundamental flaw in the system [as it] now appears that FMCSA may not be poised to even propose a solution, let alone implement one, until three years after the agency first began studying the issue.”

Todd Spencer, executive VP with the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association (OOIDA) added that instead of having all motor carriers strive for a perfect safety rating, CSA 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,” Spencer explained in his testimony. “[We] contend that the CSA scoring system is prejudicial, arbitrary and disproportionately punishes small businesses. The system does not have a way for a carrier to have any ranking at all until a violation is cited by way of an inspection.”

He also noted that a lack of a ranking for smaller carriers due to lack of exposure, or inspections, or simply by having only perfect clean inspections means they are overlooked by brokers or shippers for potential freight business – even if a particular carrier is actually a safe operator with a perfect safety record.

“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, then this has serious implications on truly knowing who is a safe carrier.”

The impact of CSA on small carriers in particular is one of the main reasons Rep. Duncan said he organized the hearing this week.

“These data problems present a significant challenge for small trucking companies which make up the majority of commercial motor vehicles,” he said. “Since many of these small companies generate little to no data into … and their scores can fluctuate dramatically and the small companies that generate no score are misconceived as unsafe.”

He also noted that questions have also been raised over the relationship of some violations and whether they are indicators of future crash risk – pointing to research conducted by Professor James Gimpel at the University of Maryland, which discerned that the “unsafe driving” behavior analysis & safety improvement category or “BASIC” accounts for less than 1% of the variation in crash frequency for over 9,000 fleets with nine to 19 inspections.

Gimpel’s research also found that, for the largest fleets, the “vehicle maintenance” BASIC actually has a negative – but not statistically significant – correlation to crash frequency. Thus, the higher the BASIC, the lower the accident frequency, he noted in his study.

“The intentions behind CSA are good, but it is not a perfect system,” said Duncan. “That’s why we held a hearing to identify where we can improve CSA and how we can reduce fatalities and injuries while keeping the engine of our economy moving.”