In its current form, FMCSA’s CSA safety rating program has inaccuracies, arbitrary weightings, no due process and is unfair to small business, the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Assn. (OOIDA) testified in a July 11 hearing held by the U.S House Committee on Small Business.

Titled “Is FMCSA’s CSA Program Driving Small Businesses Off the Road?” the purpose of the hearing was to examine CSA and its effects on small businesses. Since the implementation of the safety rating program two years ago, a large number of small businesses in the long-haul industry have cited numerous problems they see with the accuracy and equality of the program, creating disparate effects on small businesses, OOIDA said.

“Overall, it’s a backwards system that rewards poor safety performance and penalizes those who are the safest,” said Todd Spencer, executive vice president of OOIDA. “Most of trucking is made up of small businesses so this system, if it continues on this path, will put many of them out of business and make highways less safe.”

Daniel Miranda, an owner of a small company with three trucks from California, testified at the hearing about his own experience with CSA and how it almost put him out of business. Even after taking steps to correct his safety scores, Miranda said he was still faced with a poor rating.

“I asked FMCSA what to do to improve my CSA score and they told me I needed more ‘clean’ inspections, and so I did that very thing. However, my score reflected the exact opposite,” he said. “That is a terrible message to send to a small-business owner, that the survival of one’s business is beholden to a computer system that is clearly out of touch with reality.”

Testimony heard by the committee went on to describe how the system has a serious lack of due process or objective oversight, giving roadside law enforcement all of the control over disputes to citations or warnings.

“Any challenge by a small-business trucker reported to FMCSA might simply end up back in the hands of the original law enforcement agency that issued the citation, making them judge and jury,” said Spencer. “Even if you win in a local court, the violation still remains in CSA’s database and has a negative effect on the overall score.”

Committee Chairman Sam Graves (R-MO) acknowledged the contribution of small businesses to the trucking industry and the importance of identifying and correcting major gaps in the safety rating system.

“These flaws call into question not only the ability of the CSA to achieve its primary goal ― to identify unsafe actors that cause highway accidents ― but also whether, in too many instances, the new system is identifying safe operators as unsafe,” Graves said. “Of particular concern to the committee are the significant adverse consequences that the inaccurate safety scores may have on trucking companies, 97% of which are small businesses.”

Economist Michael Belzer, Ph.D., gave testimony about a particularly dramatic fatal crash involving a motor carrier that the system kept putting back on the road despite numerous safety violations prior to the accident. Using this example, he explained how the mathematics of the CSA system are not having the intended effect of improved highway safety.

“Preventable crashes like this will happen again, regardless of how many times we rework the algorithms of CSA or scrap it and replace the entire program,” said Belzer. “In short, CSA tries to address safety problems we cannot remedy until we begin to address trucking’s systemic problems.” 

CSA, while supported by many in the industry, has seen its share of criticism. Chief among those concerns is the severity weight given to accidents, even those where the commercial driver is found to not be at fault.

In the white paper, titled “Compliance, Safety, Accountability – Let’s Not Make it an Ashtray,” Rob Abbott, American Trucking Assns. vice president of safety policy said FMCSA is touting the benefits of its program, even if they don’t match the intended goal.

“According to the first paragraph of the CSA methodology, the goal of CSA is to implement more effective and efficient ways for FMCSA, its state partners, and the trucking industry to reduce commercial motor vehicle crashes, fatalities, and injuries,” Abbott wrote. “Logically, scores in each of the measurement categories should reliably identify carriers more likely to cause crashes. However, in some instances, they do not.”

Fleet managers who spoke to Fleet Owner about CSA for a recent article 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.

“I’d give it a 5,’” said 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 said 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.

Herb Schmidt, president of Joplin, MO-based Con-way Truckload, said “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].”

Speaking for the Truckload Carriers Assn., David Heller, director of safety and policy, said its membership would give CSA at best a 6.5. “CSA is a good thing,” he asserted. “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 explained. “FMCSA has taken a step back on this and will be re-examining preventability and causability of crashes.”