Yesterday afternoon’s discussion of enhancements to the public display of the CSA Safety Measurement System to better reflect stated Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration intentions for use of CSA SMS data as a prioritization tool (in spite of what some view as official agency endorsement of the SMS as a de facto safety rating scheme), FMCSA Associate Administrator for Enforcement Bill Quade offered an analogy I’ve heard before. He was attempting to explain the reasons for small carriers’ higher individual Behavioral Analysis and Safety Improvement Category (BASIC) measures (absolute values of time- and severity-weighted violations normalized by number of inspections in most BASICs and power-unit/VMT values in Unsafe Driving and the Crash Indicator). He offered the differences as the reason the system uses percentile values as primary CSA “scores,” rather than graphical representations of the measures.
“Why are relative scores used at all?” CSA subcommittee member Gary Palmer of the True Value Co. asked at one point in the discussion that hinged on questions of how to make more clear that the system was intended as an agency workload prioritization tool, not a shipper business-refusal machine. “Why not use the absolutes?”
“Why the relative scale?” said Quade. “Are you a baseball fan?… Who’s a better hitter, a guy batting .373 at the end of the season or the guy batting .750 after the first week.”
The answer, delivered in a chorus of voices in timbres varying from near-shouts to murmurs. “We don’t know.”
Of course, said Quade. The .373 batter, however, “is a statistically better number. Small carriers — their absolute scores [show] a wider range — some are at 1000, but others are at zero. The absolute scores of large carriers are lower than small carriers’.” Drawing the data line with absolute score would functionally “mean nothing to large carriers,” Quade added. “But with relative scores, they’re about the same.”
Palmer: “I appreciate that, but I’m not going to be taken to court over a fantasy baseball game,” a reference to vicarious liability concerns shippers and brokers have relative to using carriers with high SMS BASIC numbers. “With having these scores public and ours being a litigious society, a shipper can be asked to defend himself in court over this stuff.”
Quade’s response made every attempt to show that he didn’t intend to belittle the serious nature of the issue. And Palmer, who wears both shipper and carrier hats in his role at True Value and via involvement with various associations, reiterated that “I think the data should be used properly. I’d vote to remove it from access by the public. Putting on my carrier hat, though: This stuff is very helpful. I do use this as a carrier. As a shipper, I find it less than helpful.”
Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association Executive Vice President Todd Spencer: “Shippers, receivers, brokers and others have no idea what any of this means as it relates directly to safety. I don’t think it’s possible to educate them. It’s just not their business. ‘Their decisions are based on perceived liability.”
The moderator then attempted to turn the conversation back to what is working well within the display of the SMS website, but response was less than swift as silence descended over the room.
John Lannen of the Truck Safety Coalition broke it: “It’s easy to use,” he said. “And there are good descriptions of the information,” referring to the various disclaimers on the site — “they just need to be more visible” and/or accessible.
Rudolph Supina of DATTCO Motor Coach: “Carriers can keep track of their own situation a lot better, to keep on top of their own folks.”
Janice Mulanix of the California Highway Patrol: “It’s good information for enforcement, too.”
That’s one hit for the program, anyway. Wrapping up the session in a way, Jeff Tucker of the Tucker Company Worldwide brokerage, noted another perceived CSA positive, though not without qualifiers: “We’re missing that the agency now has the ability now to get to three, four, five times as many carriers as they were able to touch on a regular basis. so what is the effectiveness of CSA? Is it that shippers are panicking? There’s some of that, yes. Is it that carriers are more engaged because it’s a new program and they have to study to a new test? If I were a carrier or not, I don’t know if I’d want to have FMCSA over for tea…. The other thing that is part of that is you’ve got the surgical interventions at the extreme end, but tens of thousands of more letters are going out and getting the attention of the carrier. The biggest impact CSA has had is extending the reach of FMCSA with letters, in-person visits and creating the sense of awareness on the carrier side. But does increasing awareness [as the end] justify all the means?”