Inconsistent enforcement: CSA vs. the independent

| March 14, 2013

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.

Working with CCJ and RigDig Business Intelligence, a division of Overdrive publisher Randall-Reilly Business Media, we analyzed inspection and scoring data for CSA’s first two years. Here we offer insights into enforcement patterns and what you can do to keep your business in the clear. Find further "Inconsistent enforcement" installments via this page.

Working with CCJ and RigDig Business Intelligence, a division of Overdrive publisher Randall-Reilly Business Media, we analyzed inspection and scoring data for CSA’s first two years. Here we offer insights into enforcement patterns and what you can do to keep your business in the clear. Find further “Inconsistent enforcement” installments via this page in the coming weeks. For the next installment, an analysis of how carriers’ updates to data under their control can help CSA scores, see the story published March 18, 2013.

The truck of an independent owner-operator is four times as likely to get inspected as a truck running under the authority of carriers with more than 500 trucks, according to inspection data from the first two years of the Compliance Safety Accountability program. The likelihood of being placed out of service is three and a half times as great for independent drivers – and almost twice as likely for their vehicles – compared to those of the biggest fleets.

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration insists that its system is not biased against any carriers. Any apparent disparities are not flaws, but simply a reflection of how CSA is structured, the agency says.

One factor in the skewed enforcement actions against small operators is CSA scoring. Smaller carriers showing public BASIC (Behavioral Analysis and Safety Improvement Category) percentile rankings on average receive negative (high) scores. At the same time, because most of the smallest carriers have no public score, the average score for all of them together is abnormally low.

Click through the image for comprehensive data on rates of inspections, out of service orders and CSA BASIC percentile rankings organized according to carrier size.

Click through the image for comprehensive data on rates of inspections, out of service orders and CSA BASIC percentile rankings organized according to carrier size.

Of close to 470,000 carriers with U.S. Department of Transportation operating authority, less than half have any data in the CSA Safety Measurement System, according to recent estimates by Dave Kraft of Qualcomm. Just less than a quarter have a few inspections, but no SMS ranking or “score” in any BASIC.

In fact, more than two years after its advent, CSA has failed to produce a single public score for 80 percent of carriers with operating authority. About 90,000 carriers, or 20 percent, have at least one BASIC ranking; that’s an improvement over the 12 percent – as determined by Commercial Carrier Journal – that was cited widely in the program’s early days.

Private scores, alerts and interventions
Carriers’ scores are public with the exception of those in the Crash Indicator and Hazardous Materials BASICs. The Hazmat BASIC is new since December; FMCSA plans to make it public when the year is up.
The Crash Indicator remains private given widespread concerns that it doesn’t take into account crash fault and could present a misleading safety picture to the public, though FMCSA insists its private rankings remain their most reliable indicator of true crash risk among the BASICs.Of the 20 percent of carriers with a public ranking, more than half are at alert status, represented by an alert symbol in the “BASIC status” column on any carrier’s SMS profile. Most carriers reach BASIC alert status after one of their percentile rankings rises above that BASIC’s intervention threshold. However, it is possible for a carrier to be at alert status in a BASIC without showing a public percentile ranking due to the presence of what FMCSA calls “serious violations” on record. Any alert status marks a carrier for routine investigative action via one of the agency’s intervention options.

Given their higher exposure with so many trucks, the largest carriers are from two to 30 times more likely on average than single-truck independents to have a score above an intervention threshold, depending on the BASIC.

While FMCSA believes its system is fair, the ASECTT (Alliance for Safe, Efficient and Competitive Truck Transportation) coalition of trade associations, carriers, brokers, shippers and other service providers that has taken the agency to federal court believes otherwise. They argue that the system, amplified by FMCSA’s guidance on what the scores mean, puts all carriers – and small carriers disproportionately so – unfairly at risk, as shippers and brokers use the scores as de facto safety ratings.

The agency denies that CSA’s SMS constitutes a safety rating and washes its hands of how the data is treated in the real world. “SMS quantifies the on-road safety performance of motor carriers so that FMCSA can prioritize them for intervention,” says spokesman Duane DeBruyne. “Use of the SMS for purposes other than those identified may produce unintended results and inaccurate conclusions.”

The system’s varied results stem from how it works, FMCSA says. Larger carriers, with a much larger number of inspections and violations in total, easily exceed the minimum threshold for scoring. So the percentage of carriers with alerts in the BASICs is in line with normal expectations for such a percentile-ranking system.

On the smallest carriers’ side, the opposite is true. Just one out of 10 companies with five or fewer trucks has “a score above one of our thresholds,” said a senior FMCSA official in January. Any carrier that fails to meet the “data sufficiency standards” – varying numbers of inspections with an associated violation within two years – in any BASIC does not receive a public score there.

For carriers large and small, this irregularity can sting in different ways. It has become a problem in efforts to secure freight from brokers and shippers, which in January almost 10 percent of Overdrive readers called the No. 1 problem with CSA (see “Top 10 CSA problems” chart below).

CSA Data Sufficiency Standards in the BASICsAn independent or small carrier who keeps the number of inspections with an associated violation below the data sufficiency level never will show a score. But the ambiguity of showing no score is too risky for third parties who want to verify safety, say some – such as owner-operator Daniel Miranda, who testified before the U.S. House of Representatives’ Small Business Committee last summer.

“As a small carrier, and I have seen this firsthand, just a few minor violations can send a score skyrocketing, putting the carrier nearly out of business as it becomes evident no one will employ your services because the system shows you are a risk, even though you operate safely.”  –Daniel Miranda, testifying before the U.S. House of Representatives’ Small Business Committee in July 2012

“As a small carrier, and I have seen this firsthand, just a few minor violations can send a score skyrocketing, putting the carrier nearly out of business as it becomes evident no one will employ your services because the system shows you are a risk, even though you operate safely.”
Daniel Miranda, testifying before the U.S. House of Representatives’ Small Business Committee in July 2012

“FMCSA urges shippers and brokers to use carriers who have been inspected versus those who have not been inspected,” Miranda says. “Moreover, brokers and shippers feel as if they will be liable if they do not use carriers with positive CSA rankings, something only achievable if a carrier undergoes lots of clean inspections. As a small carrier, I am less likely to be inspected.  … It is difficult for me to show a score, much less” a positive score.

That’s only part of the dilemma. If the independent does pass a sufficiency threshold, the carrier is likely to start its publicly scored history above the intervention threshold in that BASIC. Consider the average ranking for single-truck businesses actually scored in each of the BASICs; all except the Vehicle Maintenance and Controlled Substances/Alcohol BASICs show average rankings above the intervention threshold.

In January, Overdrive polled readers on some of the biggest problems with CSA.

In January, Overdrive polled readers on some of the biggest problems with CSA.

You don’t have to look far to find examples of carriers with fewer than 15 trucks that make their CSA scoring debut at the highest level possible, 99.9, after a single inspection with a violation or two meets data-sufficiency requirements in a BASIC. This makes for no shortage of difficulty in score management.

“If the system is displaying ‘less than 5 inspections with a violation’ or ‘less than 3 inspections with a violation’ ” in any BASIC, FMCSA says, “it doesn’t mean that they might not be on the ‘cusp’ of generating sufficient negative information for us to assign a high percentile score and intervene.”

Bypass systems poll, 2013Inspection bias | Small carriers’ trucks are more likely to be inspected by roadside officers than those of large ones, says Richard Wilson, regulatory manager for Trans Products Trans Services, which caters to small fleets. Data analyzed by RigDig Business Intelligence bear him out. As fleet size increases, inspections-per-truck numbers fall. Single-truck owner-operators running under their own authority show the highest incidence of truck inspection.Part of the reason for the inspection-rate bias is exposure. Though the average haul length of single-truck independents has been trending shorter over the years, such carriers show the highest average yearly vehicle-miles-traveled number in the data, and many of the largest fleets represented in those numbers are short-haul carriers unlikely to be passing a large number of weigh and inspection stations on their routes. A small carrier with an unfamiliar name halfway across the country, too, can represent what Wilson describes as a “financial target” for roadside officers, “especially in a small rural area or in a small town.”One contributor to the difference may be the heavier use of weigh-station bypassing systems by larger carriers. Officials with PrePass – operational in 31 states, making it the largest such system – report that fleets with five or fewer trucks account for only 10 percent of the total trucks using the service, while RigDig BI numbers indicate the same group of trucks makes up more than 16 percent of the for-hire population. Include carriers up to 50 trucks, and the PrePass share is just 27 percent, according to the company, while those carriers’ trucks are 43 percent of the for-hire population.Smaller carriers with insufficient data in the federal system may see on average less utility from bypass systems as well, though PrePass reports similar pull-in rates for large and small carriers actually using its system. Every month FMCSA randomly assigns 10 percent of data-insufficient carriers an Inspection Selection System score of 99, says Bill Quade, FMCSA associate administrator for enforcement. That score marks the carriers to get many more red lights when approaching scales. 

Drill down into the data – just one click from your main carrier SMS results page – to “see how many inspections with violations that they do have and what those violations are,” FMCSA says. Then, “take efforts to avoid similar violations.”

Five-truck intermodal fleet owner Thomas Blake experienced this dynamic. He spent more than a year above the alert threshold in the Hours of Service Compliance BASIC. Now he’s back to showing no score on his main SMS profile there. It went from showing a ranking in the 60s – close to the intervention threshold – to being below data sufficiency standard levels because he had less than three inspections with a violation.

What did it take to get there? He did what a large majority of large carriers have done – invested in electronic logging. Blake, who at the time had six trucks, spent $9,000 for an eLogs system. It eliminated minor “form and manner violations,” putting his operation a leg up in the Hours BASIC over his peers.

The only way to improve scores other than getting clean inspections is to wait. The time-weight value of inspections and violations in scoring falls after six months and again after 12 months. They drop out of the SMS after two years.

It’s not uncommon for a small carrier or independent to have an unlucky rash of inspections with violations that meet data sufficiency standards. In such a case, two years saddled with a score above the intervention threshold can be a long time indeed. Without clean inspections or any new violations, some carriers even have seen scores go up over time as their number of inspections in the system decreases, placing them in a different safety-event peer group for comparison.

Installing electronic logs, a costly decision that seemingly would please inspectors and improve an independent’s score, in a sense backfired on Blake in the short term but paid off eventually. Because so many inspectors view a driver with eLogs as not worth the time of an inspection, it was unlikely that Blake’s trucks actually would get clean driver inspections to improve his score quickly. With time, however, Blake’s Hours of Service Compliance score disappeared.

The business impact of this and other scoring scenarios is what’s driving the ASECTT case against FMCSA, likewise the ongoing data-quality audit by DOT’s inspector general. The suit primarily seeks relief from agency “encouragement” of broker and shipper communities to use CSA scoring data in business decisions until the data quality issues are shored up and a rulemaking process for a new Safety Fitness Determination is finished. The SFD would allow use of CSA data to rate carrier safety as an absolute value.

The suit alleges FMCSA has gone beyond its mandate to reduce crashes by providing the systems’ rankings to the public and offering guides on their use in areas like carrier selection.

It “wasn’t until recently that there was any consequence to having a high score” in one of the BASICs, says Tom Dickmeyer, chief executive officer of the Cline Wood insurance agency. Today, as brokers get “a lot more pressure with regard to lawsuits coming back on them for the acts of motor carriers that they’ve used, they’re getting much more diligent about who they go with.” Meanwhile, some shippers “won’t entrust their loads to you … if you have high scores or a couple of alerts,” Dickmeyer says.

Insurance companies also are paying more attention to CSA. Plaintiff’s attorneys have succeeded in using concepts of negligent entrustment and vicarious liability against carriers, brokers and shippers to get larger settlements to suits that involved carriers with CSA BASIC alerts, Dickmeyer says. In general, the less expertise of the insurance company and/or its underwriters in trucking, the “heavier weight CSA is going to get” in the underwriting process due to ease of access to the public system, he says.

While the lawsuit threatens to push CSA in one direction, FMCSA is pushing it the opposite way. A Notice of Proposed Rulemaking to make the CSA SMS the basis for a safe/unsafe-to-use final determination is expected this year. If no changes are made in the data sufficiency standards and other scoring issues, it could become more difficult for many independents and small carriers to win business.

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  • http://twitter.com/bigroadinc BigRoad Inc.

    Todd, this is great series you have going on about CSA 2010 and the effect on our industry. Thanks for bringing up this valuable data and asking the right questions. Kelly

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Keith-Birmingham/525916714 Keith Birmingham

    For as long as CSA has been talked about I have preached that the purpose of CSA is not “safety”. Safety may be a by-product of it, but the real reason behind CSA is two-fold: (!.) to put the independent O/O’s and those who choose to drive for them out of business. (2.) To strengthen teamsters unions.

    It is about time someone is finally realizing the truth.

  • http://www.facebook.com/dave.nichols.75 Dave Nichols

    Government intervention is all about unintended consequences! Every facet of the lives of each of us is screwed up by government intervention! And then they intervene to fix what they screwed up. It is job security of the highest order.

  • D.P. McGee

    Once again, another illustration of how the best Government money can buy works… Union goons buy, cajole, threaten andbasically harass the “inspectors” in to overlooking infractions on Union trucks and making up for it on the little guy… A big fine might put him out of business and then he’ll have to pay union “dues’ to find a job, specially in Union controlled California!!! Its not about safety.. I heard an inspector giving a ticket because the ICC number on the truck was crooked… Now that is a real danger to the motoring public… While the “inspector was tied up with that, several “union” trucks went by “un-noticed’.. By the way the ticket cost the driver 250 dollars….

  • Justin S

    I have lost business due to the CSA score. one of my largest customer dropped me because my score went up.

    I had a couple of inspections that was bad due to hitting a deer with my truck. No lights were knocked out, but it ruined my bumper and a tire. The inspector followed me into the tire shop and then initiated his stop. He knew I was going in for tires, and he performed his inspection before I was allowed to get my tires changed. (the tires had good tread, but where the bumper was pushed into the tire it cut the tire to the cords.)

    Then I had another Agent look at my pitman arm on my truck, and said it was loose and put me out of service. The mechanic got his break over with a 4 foot extension on it and was unable to tighten the bolt any tighter than what it was.

    My biggest question is who determined the point system, How is a tire on a tandem axle more points than an inoperative brake?
    here is the break down on how my mechanic explained it to me, a tire cost $400 plus depending on the brand and quality. Brakes, you can get done for $150 per wheel.

    Then there is the issue of an empty truck, out of service going to the shop, no load. should that truck be hammered for no brakes on the trailer if it is empty?

    I also drive bus for the Army National Guard. none of the buses they have pass a basic driver inspection. yet they tell me to drive it. Whats good for the goose is good for the gander.

    Its not about safety, it is about the money

  • JP

    I think CSA is so complicated that even FMCSA can’t begin to understand it themselves. They can’t understand the disaster they created. I have been told more than once by inspectors that they don’t even understand half of it. One even told me “there’s so much crap in there, you could never learn it all”.
    This stuff in the name of “safety” is way out of control. When the day comes and we are all out of business, what will they do then?

  • RUBYT

    All i got to say is,” the best inspectors you can buy.” All you need to do is put a hundred in a conspicious place, and you can pass the toughest inspection…. Just like the TSA agents in air ports, they have a license to steal and there’s nothing we can do about it, cause the GOVERNMENT SANCTIONS IT….

  • EF

    Todd, a very through and impressive update on CSA. Will be looking to see if you’ll do a EOBR post sometime in the months to come before the next rule notice. I’ve got a few more rocks i’d like to throw at it……

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1269137418 Mike Jones

    Yep if you are a Double Zero…or ya drive for a small company..you are a TARGET for D.O.T…..they pull you around back alot…..the BIG COMPANIES can bitch and moan and make a fuss…the little guy has to Fork Over Money and be on his way…or go to jail!

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1269137418 Mike Jones

    ..yea they dont bother the Union Companies much…ya never see ABF or UPS being inspected…Payola!!!

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1269137418 Mike Jones

    ..hmm I think I’ll try that…..log book??? oh…did YOU drop this $100 bill??? Here officer…….lol

  • martymarsh

    What a pack of lies.

  • martymarsh

    I would have to agree, but the Teamsters are on their way out, they are just to stupid to lay down.

  • martymarsh

    The union goons do not have to harass anyone, the inspectors are union so they welcome an opportunity to bust the little guy. In 16 years of being with the low life Teamsters I was inspected and put out of service once, and that was only after I asked for the inspection. Otherwise I was waved on thru everytime.

  • Anon

    As a fleet and safety director, and a student of economics, I can find no useful purpose of this program. The math is flawed, it favors large fleets, and subjugates all our rights. The math for example: If a carrier has a few inspections that put them over the threshold for hours-of-service, and enough time passes that this carrier has the time weight value of a GOOD/CLEAN inspection change while not accumulating any new BAD inspections their BASIC measure will go up. YOUR CLEAN INSPECTIONS CAN HURT YOUR MEASURE MORE than a violation can. Since when did it become acceptable in this industry/nation to forgo our fourth amendment right and not demand a warent for a search of our papers or property? The DOT derives their power from us and if we don’t give them any and demand that our fourth amendment be recoginized then they no longer have the power that we all complain about. It is time for the independents to stand up and demand an end to warrentless searches.

  • http://www.facebook.com/julia.meekfrese Julia Meek-Frese

    This is exactly the truth small trucking companies are targeted more than more companies with larger fleets. I have been around trucking a very long time, my father and grandfather were both and are truck drivers and my father says that trucking aint what it used to be. Not because of drivers but because of the DOT! They think because they carry a badge that gives them authorty to walk on who ever they see fit. We spend countless hours training our drivers, and thousands of dollars maintaining our trucks and it does not make a difference. Every truck in our fleet is maintained, clean, polished and we can go thorough a port and there pulling us in for an inspections as a pose to the guy from a large trucking company with so my crap on his dash you wonder how he see the road and his bumper is held on by bailing wire and not to mention his truck don’t look as if it has been washed in years. I mean come on!!! Who really needs the inspection. But its gonna continue untill some stands up and says something.

  • Bob X

    I had a state cop tell me the same thing, “nobody could ever know all of it”.

  • http://www.facebook.com/channel19todd Todd Dills

    JP: You are no doubt correct there, from what I’ve been able to see.

  • TruckerJohn

    I’ve been shut down for 2 years now because I don’t have staff in my office during regular business hours as required by IRP. DMV won’t renew my registrations unless I sit in the office or hire someone to sit there & do nothing. How does this make the roads any safer???

  • McKenna

    I worked (management) for a large union (Teamsters) company (auto transport) for many years before starting my own small company. I have 5 trucks running regular routes, crossing three scales daily for the last 5 years. (same area as union company) I can honestly say that my first two years, I was feeling harrassed, but things have settled. When I was working for a union outfit (auto transport) I had 57 trucks running in the same area I now have 5 and averaged 5 inspections per day(almost 10%) . My first two years on my own, my trucks were being inspected at a 60% ratio, now we are at a 3%. It is a nuisance, but I do not believe the union companies are left untouched (speaking from experience) as I paid LOTS of tickets for fines incurred during inspections. I believe they are checking the newer companies and companies showing safety issues to ensure proper maintenance. Maintain your fleet, keep them shining, and keep the logs legal and you will find that life gets easier.

  • No Reform

    Very True…..

  • No Reform

    Its about CONTROL…Dictatorship Tactics…..Big Money Companies who Lobby in Washington seem to enjoy this CSA…..it helps to SQUASH their small competitors….

  • DE_from_NC

    Y’all are missing “the big picture”. This outta control gov’t (run by the banking elite Rothschilds, Rochefellers, Duponts, and such) is “Greecing us” USING OUR INDUSTRY TO DO IT !! All they have to do to bring America to it’s knees IS STOP US !! Once the store shelves get bare because we are “CSAed outta business” or “disqualified for ANY commercial driving job as a company driver” then the “Greece style” food riots start, along with store looting for clothes and other necessities. Then what’s next ? WHAT THEY’VE ALWAYS WANTED AND IT’S THE LAST THING STANDING IN THEIR WAY to having ALL OF US their “personal shoeshine boys” for life !! Martial law and gun confiscation !! They’ve run two SUCCESSFUL “tests” and America caved in miserably- Katrina & Boston. You’ve got a lot more to worry about then what your lowered CSA score is bringing about-whether you’re an independent like me OR a company driver !! STEP BACK, LOOK AT THE BIG PICTURE DOWN THE ROAD A COUPLE YEARS !! It’s all there for the viewing !! Sure you can call me names, you can bury the truth under tons of rubble and conversation, but under all that IS STILL THE TRUTH !! Think about that for a minute BEFORE you start throwing your favorite cuss words at me !! What happens to this country if we ARE ALL “CSAed to a stop” ? They’ll bring in more refugees and illegals to take your seat and they’ll be “expedited in the “qualification process” due to the “pending national emergency” !! Oh yeah, the starting pay- .12 cents a mile and they’ll smile to do it !! You’ve gotta think like a bankster to understand a bankster !! How much $$ did they make off Viet Nam ? How long did it last ? How much $$ ARE THEY STILL MAKING off “Sandiet Nam” ? And just like the Energizer Bunny, it’s still goin’, and goin’ and goin’. History DOES repeat itself, we are very close to repeating what happened in the 40′s in Germany. WHO FINANCED the “lil’ man with the big mouth and small square mustache” ? The Rothschilds, Rochefellers, Duponts & such. Repeat, repeat, repeat !! Who Owns the PRIVATE FOR PROFIT Federal Reserve ? You ain’t gonna make me type those same names again are ya ?

  • Jayne Strash

    i had a driver who received a warning ticked in texas because he did not have windshield wiper FLUID in his tank.. that went against my csa2010 score. i have 3 trucks.. each time my trucks go thru the scales in billings, mt they are pulled in, and the company is registered in montana..

  • martymarsh

    Now that is right on the money.

  • Thomas Duncan

    I got an idea,how about loosing this “got Ya!”crap and start focusing on true unsafe driving practices and stop holding safe operators responseable for unsafe ones.I never dreamed the gov. would ever be so far up my *^$%

  • guest

    What a Hilarious Comedy trucking has become….next they will have Truckers “chipped” and wearing a Clown Costume??
    Certainly its time for a Camera in every truck!! Drivers need to be Observed more…..Speed Limiters for sure this Year?? Elecro Logs are a Must too!! What a sickening joke trucking has become……all this B.S. and ya get to sleep in a crowded truckstop in a tin box with a bunch of illegal aliens??? How funny can it get???? Job for an Imbicile.

  • hacksaw

    My father in law was a long time farmer in Idaho and he always said if we could just get the misguided people in Gov. out of our hair we would do well taking care of our self. Amen