Overdrive Extra

Max Heine

CSA’s mad math: Readers right on lack of reliability

| June 03, 2014

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration says it never intended for CSA scores to become a standard rating tool used throughout the industry. Certainly the agency never expected it to cause the blacklisting of decent companies. Yet this is exactly what’s happened.

The feds should have known better when they conceived Compliance, Safety, Accountability. Given the litigious potential of highway accidents and the modern infatuation with data, why wouldn’t a carrier safety scoring system immediately become a normal part of business?

It appears that FMCSA was presumptuous in the levels of accuracy and fairness it expected from CSA. As investigations by Overdrive and others have shown, the depth of the problems mirrors the complexity of the program.

In the poll that underlies Overdrive’s forthcoming June cover story by Todd Dills, which you can read now, readers rank reliability as CSA’s top problem. For example: Otherwise clean “pre-screen” inspections too often don’t get finished and entered into the system by law enforcement. On the other hand, a new clean inspection can push a carrier into a new peer group, thereby rendering the previously safe carrier as unsafe. Furthermore, since a score can be based on just five inspections over two years, a single violation can have an outsized effect.

inspection

When a clean inspection can hurt an independent’s rating, something’s wrong with the system.

These are only some of the ways that CSA numbers tell tall tales. Because of the way the system is structured, in most cases the scoring reliability problems affect small independents more than larger carriers.

Many in the industry have been calling for carriers’ percentile rankings from the Safety Measurement System to be made private. In Overdrive’s poll, that was supported by 70 percent of readers. Nearly half would like to see inspection and violation data removed, too.

Those steps would be an improvement, at least for now.  Private scores probably would drive some shippers to require that carriers reveal their rankings if they want to do business, as Todd Spencer of the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association points out.

Since no real fix of CSA scores’ reliability is imminent, perhaps there is a way for FMCSA to keep questionable data secret, even from prying shippers and insurers. It might seem too simplistic, too much a waste of data, to move toward a safety profile that’s little more than knowing whether a carrier has been placed out of service or not. At the other extreme, to what extent is it the public’s right to know every single fleet safety measurement when many numbers are seriously skewed, taken out of context or outdated? 

Clearly the “A” in CSA isn’t working when the data being accounted for paint a distorted picture. The result is a system where too many carriers, especially struggling independents, are assumed guilty until proven innocent.

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