CSA’s Fallout: Trapped in a CSA nightmare

| July 07, 2014

The article below is part of an ongoing, in-depth series on the U.S. Department of Transportation's Compliance, Safety, Accountability program that analyzes federal inspection, investigation and crash data and offers original reporting. Overdrive and CCJ editors have built a site dedicated to hosting the stories, interactive maps and downloadable data at CCJdigital.com/csa.

Safety Jail

Old Time Express' Mark White

Old Time Express’ Mark White

Small fleet operator Mark White of Hartsville, Tenn., has been involved in the family business, Old Time Express, since his father founded it in the mid-1990s.

Bo White “almost went broke the first month,” Mark White says of his father. Today, however, the company uses about 25 company-driven and owner-operator trucks. “It’s been the sheer grace of God that we got this far.”

That growth came slowly, in keeping with Bo White’s philosophy of doing business in a time-honored way. Traditional approaches to trucking have been changing, though, since the advent of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s Compliance, Safety, Accountability program in 2010.

Keep tuned to OverdriveOnline.com throughout the week for more from the second monthly installment of this yearlong series on real-world fallout from the CSA carrier safety ranking program. Access all of our past special coverage of CSA via this page.

Keep tuned to OverdriveOnline.com throughout the week for more from the second monthly installment of this yearlong series on real-world fallout from the CSA carrier safety ranking program. Access all of our past special coverage of CSA via this page.

One crumbling notion is that minimizing contact with law enforcement authorities is always best, particularly when it comes to the compliance review or, in CSA parlance, the federal safety “intervention.”

As Overdrive reported last month, FMCSA is transitioning out of the old safety-rating model. However, it remains the only system in which a safety evaluation of a carrier can take place, officially. Ratings of Satisfactory, Conditional or Unsatisfactory are possible. Given the limitations in the number of carriers the system can reach – only an onsite comprehensive compliance review or intervention can result in a rating for a previously unrated carrier – being unrated in the old model hasn’t posed a problem for carriers before or since CSA began.

“Some say a Conditional safety rating is the new Unsatisfactory.” –Attorney Henry Seaton

The Conditional rating is another story. It used to be that a Conditional rating was unlikely to put a carrier out of business, given FMCSA made it a priority to follow up on Conditional ratings to assess changes the carrier had made in cooperation with the agency. Now the agency essentially has abandoned old policies that prioritized follow-up Conditional carrier reviews.

One senior official, speaking on background, explained that even before CSA, a transition was under way. Today’s emphasis is on more of a “performance-based program whereby we recognized that it is more appropriate to intervene first on known current performance problems rather than follow up on old Conditional ratings.”

A carrier rated Satisfactory under CSA, the source went on, may need more enforcement attention than a carrier with an “ancient” Conditional. That’s because, in FMCSA’s view, the performance data delivered by the CSA Safety Measurement System are better markers of carrier safety than the snapshot-rating approach of the old model.

Related

VIDEO: Old Time Express’ Mark White — a two-year regulatory odyssey, in his own words

White tells his story -- featured in the July 2014 issue of Overdrive -- of two years spent under the Conditional safety rating and the aftermath. Today, the Satisfactory-rated small fleet is running electronic logs.

Even though FMCSA is placing less importance on Conditional ratings, some in the private sector see the Conditional rating of the old model as gaining even greater import for small carriers’ business prospects. Combined with CSA’s seven BASIC category measures of carrier compliance, the Conditional rating has assumed greater importance in broker and shipper carrier-selection processes. That linkage largely is ignored by FMCSA’s new approach to Conditional ratings.

Meanwhile, the replacement for the old rating model remains years off. The agency plans to tie a new “Safety Fitness Determination” rating to performance-based data garnered from roadside inspections and crashes.

SAFETY RATING TRENDS SHARPLY NEGATIVE | Since the advent of the Compliance, Safety, Accountability program, safety ratings have had much more impact on a carrier’s ability to win or keep shippers. Yet over CSA’s four-year history, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration has become much less likely to issue a rating.  Of reviews of U.S. carriers in the most recent complete fiscal year, 2013, about 76 percent of reviews that could have resulted in a safety rating actually did so. Compare that to the final pre-CSA year of 2010, when the percentage of ratable reviews was 87 percent. Furthermore, the overall number of intensive carrier reviews – the kind that result in safety ratings – in 2010 was twice as high as the number conducted in 2013. That’s because the agency has shifted away from the traditional compliance review to greater reliance on more focused reviews and away from a safety-rating approach.  Transportation attorney Hank Seaton contends FMCSA has shifted accountability for determining carrier safety “from itself onto the shippers and brokers,” an attempt to “strong-arm the public” into doing the agency’s job.

FEWER RATINGS, LESS BUSINESS | Since the advent of the Compliance, Safety, Accountability program in 2010, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration has become much less likely to issue a safety rating just as that rating has assumed greater importance. Of reviews of U.S. carriers in the most recent complete fiscal year, 2013, about 76 percent of reviews that could have resulted in a safety rating actually did so. Compare that to the final pre-CSA year of 2010, when the percentage of ratable reviews was 87 percent.
Furthermore, the overall number of intensive carrier reviews – the kind that result in safety ratings – in 2010 was twice as high as the number conducted in 2013. That’s because the agency has shifted away from the traditional compliance review to greater reliance on more focused reviews and away from a safety-rating approach. Transportation attorney Hank Seaton contends FMCSA has shifted accountability for determining carrier safety “from itself onto the shippers and brokers,” an attempt to “strong-arm the public” into doing the agency’s job.

 

“Here’s Big Brother the insurance company: … ‘The carrier you’re dealing with has a Conditional rating, and here’s their current SMS ratings. … We don’t think you ought to be dealing with these people.’” – Richard Wilson of TCRG Consulting (pictured); see Overdrive's extended video interview with Wilson about current practices relative to the Conditional safety rating at the bottom of this post, or click here to watch it on YouTube.

“Here’s Big Brother the insurance company: … ‘The carrier you’re dealing with has a Conditional rating, and here’s their current SMS ratings. … We don’t think you ought to be dealing with these people.’” –Richard Wilson of TCRG Consulting (pictured); see Overdrive‘s extended video interview with Wilson about current practices relative to the Conditional safety rating at the bottom of this post, or click here to watch it on YouTube.

Conditional carriers before and after CSA
“There are carriers out there who have been conditional for 10 to 15 years,” says longtime regulatory consultant Richard Wilson, based in Delaware. If they don’t have high CSA scores, they think “why bother” with requesting a review to upgrade to Satisfactory, which 385.17 of the Code of Federal Regulations allows at any time. That “why bother” approach “is the old philosophy,” says Wilson.

He tells of Conditional carriers he’s worked with over the years that have gotten their compliance operation in shape after the rating was handed down. Six months to a year after beginning such work, Wilson typically would advise the carrier to request a voluntary compliance review to upgrade to Satisfactory, inviting FMCSA to come take a look. By then, Wilson’s done what amounts to “a complete compliance review myself,” he says.

In the past, following such reviews, “70 percent of the feedback I’d get is that, ‘It hasn’t bothered us, it hasn’t cost us business. As long as we keep ourselves under the radar, we don’t have to worry about dealing with the FMCSA.’”

Related

CSA’s Fallout: Scoring reliability woes dominate independents’ concerns

Overdrive's 2014 CSA survey shows independents are most concerned about reliability of scores, but the system’s many flaws haven’t halted third-party use of the rankings in business decisions.

The new world, however, is proving otherwise. Old Time Express’ most recent audit was its fifth since 1999, according to the CSA SMS. It was prompted after the fleet “popped a triangle,” or exceeded the intervention threshold, in the Hours of Service Compliance BASIC in the CSA SMS, Mark White says.

On March 15, 2012, an inspector came out for the audit. “He’d been the one doing the previous two or three audits, a nice guy and a former driver,” White says. He uncovered a pattern of hours violations by requesting time-stamped fuel receipts, something he’d not done previously.

The audit is listed on Old Time Express’ carrier profile in the CSA SMS as a traditional compliance review, but White’s telling of it sounds very much like a focused hours of service intervention. End result: Old Time Express was saddled with a Conditional safety rating in addition to the high Hours BASIC score.

Larger brokers said, “ ‘Look, we’re not going to load you.’ Over time, more and more started to drop off,” White says. “There were some who would say that as long as you can show us that in good faith you’re making an attempt” to improve things, “we’ll keep using you.”

In the aftermath: “Roadside inspections spiked,” White says. This likely had less to do with the company’s Conditional rating and more to do with its “alert” status in the Hours of Service BASIC. The Hours BASIC is the only one of the seven CSA categories of measurement where a single alert status flags carriers for inspection by roadside inspectors.

Before it could get better, Old Time Express started to look worse. Its Hours BASIC score went up, and with all the added inspections, maintenance violations pushed its Vehicle Maintenance score eventually fairly close to the intervention threshold.

Meanwhile, trying to deal with the Conditional rating, the carrier initiated a log-auditing service and repeatedly stressed the importance of logbook currency and accuracy and operating within legal constraints. However, two to three months following the Conditional rating, the plan was rejected by the Tennessee FMCSA division as inadequate, White says. The agency declined to conduct a follow-up review.

Related

CSA’s Fallout: ‘Ugly little secret’ — severity weights, peer groups need work

The draft report issued April 30 from the CSA Subcommittee of FMCSA's MCSAC advisors included a large section on potential methods of improving the scoring system.

Old Time Express was experiencing what transportation attorney Henry Seaton calls the “safety jail” effect. It happens when the Conditional rating is combined with a golden triangle or two in the CSA SMS, said Seaton, speaking last fall at the National Association of Small Trucking Companies’ annual meeting in Nashville, Tenn.: “Some say a Conditional safety rating is the new Unsatisfactory. Conditional now is much more difficult to get upgraded.” The longer the agency waits to come back out to re-evaluate a carrier, he added, “it basically starves [a carrier] out of business.” 

Wilson concurs. From the shipper’s point of view, value of service, time to deliver and cost were the primary elements of “the old formula,” as he calls it. Now an insurer, taking note of a carrier’s Conditional rating and SMS ratings, tells the shipper, “We don’t think you ought to be dealing with these people,” he says. 

Shifting reasons for reviews graphic



Part 2: How Old Time Express turned the lock open with a rating upgrade

  • Joe lange

    I have been down this exact same road as described above. MC#234878

    It was a life changing ordeal to say the least. I had to change my entire business model from the ground up. I had to fire and hire until i found the right drivers who know how to work the job. It wasn’t easy it was the hardest road i have ever had to travel as a company… I consider my self extremely lucky i had a few direct customers who had faith in me and stuck with me. Once we obtained that satisfactory rating obtaining and maintaining a compliant csa alert free fleet has been the goal ever since. That isn’t easy either i might add but I believe we do an amazing job when i see most of my direct competition.

  • Dragon

    Ummm how about if these companies no matter how small quit thinking they they are ‘above’ the law and follow the rules just like everyone else? I get from reading this that they have or are not following the on duty not driving rules for fueling… And now they are throwing a fit bc they got caught. And the companies with the “why bother” attitude won’t get the upgrades bc they are still violating the rules and don’t want to get caught and down graded.

  • Richard Wilson

    I understand and It’s hard work but worth it!

  • anom

    They aren’t only checking duty status when they are looking at fuel receipts.

  • centerlaneshow

    Good write up Todd Rich and I will talk about this on our show this week

  • guest

    How can you take this industry seriously?? You expect to earn a PROFIT somehow??

  • guest

    Nobody would INVEST real money in a commie system like this??

  • Jerry

    Humph; get a new Agency for the Carrier Insurance.

  • Cameron

    Never one single, solitary word about whether this company was ACTUALLY UNSAFE or not. The Feds really don’t care about actual safety, CSA is all about compliance with their rules for compliance sake, actual on-road safety is irrelevant.
    Just consider the fact that an alert in the HOS basic earns you more roadside inspections than the Unsafe driving basic. Things like speeding and following too closely account for many times more actual accidents than BS HOS violations do, yet get no attention.
    Sheeple that whine about companies like this , saying they should “just follow the rules” are the real problem with this industry, and this country. Putting people out of business, out of work, because they concentrate on their business, not the silly rules that silly people push to control sheeple, without any actual evidence that they are a danger to anybody is disgusting and evil.

  • Robin

    What most don’t understand is that each inspector has his own grey area. I’ve known some to ignore 5min off on your fuel. ie: receipt shows fueling @ 1:35 and you logged 1:15 to 1:30. The inspector would state that you should have started the log for fueling @ 1:30 not 1:15. Then others will give you a 15 min window before or after you flagged your log. I’ve gone through two compliance reviews at my office and each inspector/auditor applied their own take on the regulations. This is the same problem you run into at roadside inspections.

    Lastly, the system is set up in a way that violations can quickly elevate your scores; yet, it takes nearly twice or triple the amount of good marks to lower the scores. ie, flat tire = 8 pts but a Level 1 with no violations only nets you 3 pts. It would take nearly three inspections to erase the flat tire. And this is only if you don’t get any violations during those inspections. Not to mention that each inspector has their own take on what constitutes a flat tire. And this goes on and on with all interpretations of the code.

  • Stephen Thomas

    Some people that post on here dont have a clue they think just because the dot writes it up it means thats what happened,ive had my share with the dot and yes an alert makes them pull you in more which gets you more violations.sad to say im out of business because of drivers not keeping logs current and equipment not that I didnt spend most of my money keeping equipment up to par ,it was evertday stuff like a light a cap half peeled .just to say its not always the companys fault we try to abide by the rules but there are just to many variances working against us