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

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Updated Mar 16, 2023

Three and a half years after Compliance, Safety, Accountability began its radical scrambling of how trucking safety is monitored and scored, owner-operators and carriers continue to suffer from its fallout while bureaucrats struggle to repair the complex program.

Percentages above reflect respondents to Overdrive‘s 2014 CSA survey’s choices after being asked to indicate the top three most pressing problems with the CSA program. 

Among carriers receiving a ranking in any of the CSA BASICs (Behavioral Analysis and Safety Improvement Categories), none feel the program’s inadequacies more than the smallest independents. As one respondent noted in Overdrive’s recent survey on CSA, the “small guys get looked at because a single incident shows up as a bigger percentage” with a more dramatic effect on rankings, and “not because we are unsafe.”

Unreliable small-fleet scoring was ranked the number one CSA problem in the survey. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration acknowledges CSA problems and strives for improvements. At the same time, the agency rigorously defends the system as is, with confidence in the CSA Safety Measurement System’s numerical evaluation of carriers.

“It is a good tool, and it is one of the factors that should be looked at” by all industry participants to measure carrier safety, says Bill Quade, FMCSA associate administrator for enforcement.

But a growing chorus of drivers, owner-operators and others call for scores to be removed from public view until the agency gets the kinks worked out.

In Overdrive polling, seven in 10 called for removal of the scores, and nearly half also wanted all inspection and violation data to be removed. Such sentiment reflects the reality that many shippers and brokers treat the scores as gospel truth, refusing to do business with fleets that, in some cases, are just as safe as they were prior to CSA’s activation.

CSA scores: To be or not to be public
It wasn’t so long ago that suppression of CSA scores was an active debate among others than just industry representatives.

In February 2013, a majority of the Motor Carrier Safety Advisory Committee’s CSA Subcommittee came close to officially urging the agency to withhold percentile rankings in the BASICs from public view in the CSA SMS. Removing scores from public view, however, was not an option on the table when the CSA subcommittee met this past April.

Keep tuned to OverdriveOnline.com throughout the week for more from Part One 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 Part One 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.

Removing the scores might not even be feasible as long as the program exists, suggests subcommittee member Todd Spencer, executive vice president of the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association. That’s because there’s a “cat’s-out-of-the-bag” effect in third-party reliance on the scores. If the scores were available only to law enforcement and carriers themselves, Spencer says, some shippers then likely would require disclosure as part of carrier contracts.

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Another potential consequence would be a flood of Freedom of Information Act requests for carrier SMS BASIC scores, said MCSAC member John Lannen of the Truck Safety Coalition of public safety advocates.

Tom Sanderson, chief executive officer of broker/3PL Transplace, told the CSA Subcommittee in April that “several large shippers have told us that even one BASIC over the intervention threshold knocks a carrier out of their service.”

Cream of the Crop Transportation’s Hours of Service BASIC score went beyond the intervention threshold a couple of years ago, and owner J. Webb Kline says the small fleet lost as much as $1.5 million in annual sales. It was “a glaring example of just what an economic disaster this program is for companies like ours that fall through the cracks of the system,” Kline says.

After Cream of the Crop went more than a year without an hours violation, his small fleet no longer showed any percentile ranking or score whatsoever in that BASIC, so the FMCSA warning triangle disappeared.

“Many of our old customers told me they checked every month to see if they could use us again, and they called as soon as we lost the triangle,” Kline says. “Our sales shot up from an average of $4,000 a week per truck to well over $5,000, and often exceeding $6,000 per week per truck practically overnight.”

It’s not just small carriers that take issue with the public nature of SMS scores. Irwin Shires of all-owner-operator Panther Expedited Services says he’s “fought very hard” to expose fundamental flaws in CSA’s percentile ranking approach. Among the worst, he says, is the scores’ public nature.

In the small Safety Event Group (with just 73 of the largest straight-truck carriers as of April 2014) of which Panther is a member, the percentile-ranking basis of scores in the Unsafe Driving BASIC “dooms approximately 25 carriers to never being able to improve their score to a point to where their golden triangle goes away,” Shires says. That’s because in all of the BASIC categories, the system grades on a curve, creating a “Darwinian” scenario where the weakest carriers, no matter how safe they are, fall prey to those who score better.

“It’s like a scarlet letter,” Shires said, “that brokers and shippers are using in determining whether to put their freight on a carrier’s truck.”


Part 2 in this series, detailing problems arising from the disconnect between the CSA SMS and the current safety rating program. 

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