Ten trade associations representing companies that own and operate commercial trucks and buses have jointly asked the Dept. of Transportation (DOT) to remove from public view carriers’ Compliance, Safety, Accountability scores based on the Safety Measurement System (SMS) and to direct the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) to make improving CSA a high priority. The groups said they would support public display of the data once the program is fixed appropriately.

In an Aug. 22 letter to DOT Secretary Anthony Foxx, the associations said they were alerting DOT of recent research into CSA and SMS, although the research they cite were from separate Government Accountability Office reports published months ago.

A February 2014 GAO report was highly critical of the SMS’ effectiveness in identifying high-risk carriers. Another GAO report in May addressed steps the Defense Department could take to improve the transportation of hazardous materials shipments, and it recommended against relying on SMS scores as an indicator of carriers’ safety condition.

Coincidentally or not, the groups sent the letter to Foxx on Anne Ferro’s last day as FMCSA administrator. From the beginning of CSA, FMCSA hid the crash indicator score from public view, and early on the agency tweaked some Behavior Analysis and Safety Improvement Categories (BASICs) to hide or disguise data in certain areas, such as cargo securement and hazardous materials.

But Ferro steadfastly refused to acknowledge that any flaws in SMS methodology or data quality were sufficient enough to warrant hiding other scores from the public – even after GAO’s highly critical report. Instead, Ferro’s agency asked DOT’s Volpe National Transportation Systems Center to produce a quick rebuttal. And Ferro consistently encouraged shippers, brokers and others to use CSA data as at least one part of their decisionmaking.

“Our organizations understand and appreciate the merits of using safety measurements to publicly distinguish carriers that are involved in crashes or cited for violations that are related to crashes from those that are not,” the ten groups said. “Such measurements, if fair and accurate, could leverage the marketplace (i.e. shippers, brokers, passengers and consignees) to further incentivize safe operating practices. Further, it would cause more business to flow to those carriers who do not crash or commit violations related to crashes.”

This was CSA’s original intent “an objective broadly supported by our organizations and others in the motor carrier industry,” the groups said. “For these reasons, the needed improvements to support public display of accurate scores must be a high priority. We recognize that assignment of accurate and consistently reliable scores is a very difficult goal for FMCSA to achieve, but is nonetheless one that the agency must be committed to attaining.”

The letter recounts some of the key findings in the GAO reports and notes that another DOT agency – the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) – handles the dangers of public display of misleading data differently.

Recognizing that ranking airlines based on past accident records provides no information to consumers seeking to make safety-enhancing comparisons for current or future travel choices, FAA demands that any requests for safety records on accidents, enforcements and maintenance difficulties be made in writing, the trucking groups noted.

“Unfortunately, though CSA SMS scores can cause third parties to make erroneous ‘safety-enhancing comparisons,’ FMCSA continues to make them available on the Internet,” the groups said.

Publicizing SMS scores based on today’s data and approach is not just detrimental to carriers unfairly, but it also can be counterproductive, the associations told Foxx.

“Naturally, scores that erroneously paint otherwise safe and responsible carriers as more likely to be involved in a crash are harmful to those operations,” the letter stated. Because scores are based on comparative performance, carriers with a pattern of crash involvement or of committing violations correlated to crash involvement may later be portrayed as having better performance. “Of course, suggesting that such carriers are actually safer, by comparison, will have the unintended effect of driving either passengers or freight to them and is poor public policy.”

Removing carriers’ SMS scores from public view “will not only spare motor carriers harm from erroneous scores, but will also reduce the possibility that the marketplace will drive business to potentially risky carriers that are erroneously being painted as more safe,” the associations concluded.

The 10 groups signing on to the letter are the American Trucking Assns., the American Bus Assn., the American Moving and Storage Assn., the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Assn., the National Private Truck Council, the National School Transportation Assn., National Tank Truck Carriers, the Specialized Carriers and Rigging Assn., the Truckload Carriers Assn. and the United Motorcoach Assn.