Crashes and interventions: CSA’s crash flaw
Previously in the CSA’s Data Trail “Crashes and interventions” installment: “Blitzkrieg probes coming to trucking”
The largest truck fleets show crash rates well above that of one-truck carriers, yet the megafleet trucks and drivers are inspected at only a fourth of the rate of the single-truck operations, according to Overdrive’s analysis of federal data. Single-truck independent drivers, the safest group on the highway, are 3.5 times more likely to be put out of service than drivers for carriers with 500 or more trucks.
The carrier crash data was compiled by Overdrive publisher Randall-Reilly Business Media’s RigDig Business Intelligence unit (rigdig.com/bi). It covers the first two years of the Compliance Safety Accountability program, launched in December 2010 by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration.
FMCSA official Duane Debruyne declined to comment on any aspect of Overdrive‘s analysis.
For one-truck operators, these enforcement disparities entail not simply the day-to-day hassles of dealing with a well-armed regulatory regime. The bad ratings that come with violations and out-of-service orders make it increasingly difficult to secure freight in a safety-scoring landscape tilted in favor of their larger competitors.
While single-truck operators are the safest, accident rates – measured per million miles traveled – spike when those operators start adding trucks. The highest rates were found in fleets of two to 15 trucks. This isn’t surprising, given that fleets in that range often have no full-time manager outside of a truck – let alone a full-time safety director – and may in many instances tend toward less-restrictive prospective-driver screening.
But at the extreme ends of carrier size, the disconnect between driver out-of-service rates and carrier crash rates highlights seemingly intractable problems for small fleets at roadside, says Richard Wilson, regulatory manager with Trans Products Trans Services. Wilson believes, as do others, that too many inspectors, as well as FMCSA investigators, view small fleets as low-hanging fruit. For inspectors, the small fleets are easy revenue through citations. For investigators, it’s the numbers game – activity measured by fleet count – public agencies play to justify their existence.
“The larger carriers with full safety staffs and supported by big trucking organizations have an advantage because they’re labor-intensive for FMCSA investigative staff,” Wilson says. “They’re time-consuming, and for the value of the amount of violations found and the amount of people FMCSA will have to put in place to do it, they become unfeasible. … It’s much more efficient to compile large numbers of interventions on smaller carriers that provide the numbers necessary to meet the standards of the budget offices.”
Speaking at the Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance spring meeting in Louisville, Ky., FMCSA Associate Administrator for Enforcement Bill Quade, however, suggested that the agency’s outsize attention to small carriers is just a reflection of the industry’s makeup, given that most entities involved in trucking are in fact small.
The stellar accident record of one-truck independents, in some sense, is to be expected. “A guy that owns his own truck has his life savings in that truck” in many cases, says Phil McGuire, president of Texas-based McGuire Transportation, which has roughly a 100-truck mix of owner-operator and (mostly) company-owned trucks. “He doesn’t want to put a scratch on it, much less be in an accident.” Managing only yourself, McGuire adds, “you can do a lot better” keeping a handle on safety.
When carriers of any size have negative CSA percentile rankings in the public BASICs (Behavioral Analysis and Safety Improvement Categories), brokers, shippers and insurance companies now are more interested. J. Webb Kline, owner of a Pennsylvania-based six-truck fleet, said in February he’d lost in the neighborhood of “$1.5 million in sales over the past year because brokers and shippers look at our score [in the Hours of Service Compliance BASIC] and think we’re high risk. And we lost some of our best accounts because they aren’t allowed to load our trucks, even though they need them.”
|How the Crash Indicator works
Carriers must have had at least two DOT-recordable crashes – those involving a towaway, an injury or a fatality – in the past two years to obtain a percentile ranking in the Crash Indicator BASIC. Access to that private number can be obtained by logging into your carrier profile with your DOT-issued PIN via csa.fmcsa.dot.gov, then clicking “CSA Login” at top right.
FMCSA assigns a severity weighting of 1 point for each towaway crash, 2 points for each crash involving an injury or a fatality. It adds 1 point if there was a hazardous materials release associated with the crash. The agency then multiplies the points total for each crash by a time-weighting factor of 1, 2 or 3 depending on whether it occurred between 24 and 12 months ago, 12 months and 6 months ago, or during the most recent 6 months. Subsequent calculations then attempt to normalize the crash rates by carrier exposure, using carriers’ self-reported number of power units and annual vehicle-miles-traveled.Officials say it’s important to keep those self-reported census numbers current during annual or more frequent updates to carrier MCS-150 forms. For more on the importance of maintaining carrier census data used in computation of both Crash Indicator and Unsafe Driving CSA BASIC scores, follow this link for the March “CSA’s Data Trail” installment dedicated to the subject.
Kline’s ranking problem was primarily the public Hours BASIC, with scoring information visible to anyone with a Web connection. FMCSA continues to keep ranking data private in the Crash Indicator BASIC, but carriers’ federally recordable crash data – minus the ranking and any indication of who was at fault in the accident – still is listed in full one click away from the main pages of carriers’ public CSA profiles in the Safety Measurement System.
“Profit from CSA in being able to bid out your business better – or CSA will profit from you,” says David Saunders, chief executive officer of Texas-headquartered Compliance Safety Systems, which administers drug and alcohol screening programs for carriers. “Small and large carriers will have to defend themselves with customers. Say my [public BASICs] are high as a small carrier, but I don’t have a high crash rate with DOT recordables – ‘Why won’t you do business with me?’ ”
The Crash Indicator BASIC is one where owner-operators, carriers and drivers with a fairly clean crash history can benefit, says Saunders. That’s often true even for those, like Kline, with high scores in other BASICs.
The largest all-leased-owner-operator carrier in the nation, Landstar System, was able to exploit its Crash Indicator ranking, says Joe Beacom, vice president of safety. In 2012, Landstar Inway, one of the company’s primary truckload fleets, moved above the intervention/alert threshold in the Hours of Service Compliance BASIC.
That raised concerns for some shippers and also marked the carrier for federal attention. Landstar began to voluntarily show shippers its private Crash Indicator percentile ranking as a way to prove its safety in ways other BASICs didn’t. “It’s 9 or so – the top 10 percent best in accident frequency in the peer group,” Beacom said earlier this year.
Landstar also began requiring use of electronic onboard recorders for hours monitoring for all new lessees with Inway and Ranger, its other primary truckload fleet. This helped turn Inway’s score around and put it back below threshold.
For small fleets with a few accidents that were not their fault, however, the opposite of Landstar’s case may well be true. Independent owner-operator Melvin Davis tells of his father’s four-truck BMD Inc. fleet, based in Michigan. Despite having a virtually perfect CSA profile – with none of the five public BASICs registering any score whatsoever – BMD has seen two accidents associated with one of its drivers in the past two years.
“Neither one of the accidents were his fault,” Davis says. “The first one definitely wasn’t, as a woman spun out on the ice in front of him. The second one was in Indianapolis on a blind curve” where traffic had stopped unexpectedly. “He was never charged with the accident,” says Davis.
And yet both accidents are part of BMD’s Crash Indicator score because there is no accounting for blame in that scoring.
“If it’s not your fault, how can you be slammed for it?” Davis asks, reflecting the opinion of many in the industry.
The conclusion of FMCSA’s research into whether it can start to account for fault in carrier crash data is due this year. Speaking to the Maryland Motor Truck Association’s Western Maryland Chapter in December 2011, FMCSA Administrator Anne Ferro said the goal of the research “is to code every interstate motor carrier crash as either ‘accountable’ or ‘not accountable’ to the motor carrier and the driver. However, this is an enormous task, and it will take time to implement.” Since then, Ferro has been less emphatic about the goals of the crash-accountability study. Other representatives in the agency have started questioning whether such an accounting is even possible in many cases.
You don’t have to look far to find an owner-operator who’s gone decades without being in a crash. Until February, that was the case for Utah-based Aegirson Enterprises owner-operator Scott Lawrence, whose last crash had occurred in Oregon in 1987. That one wasn’t his fault, either. The driver was “high as a kite” and suddenly turned into the truck, Lawrence says.
Lawrence’s 25-year-plus run of no crashes came to an end in February. Driving near Twin Falls, Idaho, he saw in his left mirror a four-wheeler “following me and flashing his lights,” he says. When Lawrence slowed to allow the four-wheeler to pass, he realized the car somehow had become attached to the driver-side bumper of his trailer. He slowed further, and the vehicle disappeared from view.
Then, via his right mirror, Lawrence saw lights in the ditch, and he stopped. “They came walking up to me, this young kid and his girlfriend,” he recalls. The couple was unhurt and “tried to say I’d drifted out of my lane.” But an officer who drove the length of the accident three times over the subsequent investigation eventually pronounced the four-wheelers at fault for excessive speed and inattention.
Still, given that the couples’ four-wheeler was towed away from the scene, the crash now is listed one click away from the front page of Lawrence’s carrier profile in FMCSA’s public CSA SMS.
For carriers with crashes on the record, says Saunders, the other crucial piece of the carrier self-defense pie relative to CSA is the driver and vehicle out-of-service rate. “Rather than being hung up on how un-American CSA is and how the federal government messed up, polish the image of who you are as a company and a driver,” he says. “Look for a way to position yourself as a driver and as a company to … be able to tell a shipper or insurance company” you’re dependable.
“If every time I get in that truck I have a chance of being put out of service because I violated a rule, that shipper won’t conduct business with me,” Saunders adds. “The insurance company won’t work with me.”
Next up in the “Crashes and interventions” installment of the CSA’s Data Trail series: “Wreck frequency varies widely by state.”