Big data blowback: Trucking goes to Congress over CSA

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Updated Sep 24, 2014
Access all of our past special coverage of CSA via this link.Access all of our past special coverage of CSA via this link.

The reason why carriers of all shapes and sizes have a problem with CSA, as I’ve written before, has not to do with its stated purpose, by and large — time and again, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration has emphasized its role as a law-enforcement prioritization tool. Though you don’t have to look hard to evidence that the agency views the CSA Safety Measurement System as having a role beyond law enforcement prioritization, nonetheless that’s where you tend to find most official pronouncements about the program, particularly when FMCSA’s being taken to task for CSA’s problems.

We reported yesterday on the bill in the House of Representatives, the second bill related to the subject of CSA over the past several months. Find the first one here — it was intended to clarify broker-shipper carrier selection requirements given the confusing picture of motor carrier safety that can be presented by the CSA SMS. Where it stopped short of asking the agency to hold the CSA SMS from public view, the most recent bill definitely goes there. The text of the bill was obtained yesterday by Overdrive as it continues, at press time, to go through the Government Printing Office process toward publication. You can track progress of the bill via this link. The bill number, H.R. 5532, would require the FMCSA make certain the CSA program … 

(1) utilizes and generates only safety data and scores, including Safety Measurement System scores, determined to be predictive of motor carrier accidents;
(2) appropriately addresses concerns relating to the age of utilized safety data, including violations;
(3) does not unfairly harm small motor carriers as a result of limited safety data availability;
(4) appropriately addresses differences between motor carriers transporting passengers and motor carriers transporting freight;
(5) generates safety data that allows individual motor carriers, including safety scores assigned to individual motor carriers, to be effectively compared; and
(6) utilizes accurate safety data, including— (A) by appropriately addressing variations between State- and self-reported data; (B) by accounting for geographic disparities with respect to enforcement; and (C) by utilizing only crash data from crashes with respect to which a motor carrier was at fault.

You can download the full language of the bill via this link.

It would put certain time requirements on FMCSA to revamp the system, ultimately, and the concerns represented by the above track closely to the problems that have been identified over the last several years and which result in a public picture of a motor carrier that the general public (including brokers and shippers), hungry for data, can easily use to make judgments. Therein lies the principle issue, and it’s one we’ve covered repeatedly here. The reliability of the scoring for such purposes — when business is on the line — readers ranked No. 1 in a list of problems that began this year’s CSA’s Fallout series of reports.

I spoke with Joe Rajkovacz of the California Construction Trucking Association and the CCTA’s Western Trucking Alliance interstate conference this morning. Rajkovacz was one of the signatories to this letter to the DOT following the so-called CSA Coalition’s own recent letter, both of which called for DOT to force the FMCSA to pull SMS rankings from public view pending a revamp of the program. Rajkovacz was back in California following the Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance’s meeting in Buffalo, N.Y., last week, where he said the topic of whether CVSA and the law enforcement community in general should join the industry’s call for the removal of scores from public view was much debated, if never settled. “There were a lot of impassioned pleas to get law enforcement behind the industry on this,” he said. “I did say, ‘You can be on the right side of this, or the reality is the industry will run on to Congress.'” Lo and behold, the bill in question “dropped a day later,” he says, the press release from Pennsylvania Congressman Lou Barletta’s office including quotes from representatives of the ATA, OOIDA and NASTC

On the merits of the bill, Rajkovacz says there’s a lot to like, particularly the focus on preventing public release of “safety data and scores, including Safety Measurement System scores, determined to be predictive of motor carrier accidents,” No. 1 in the list of bill stipulations above. “That gets to the heart and soul of what the [early 2014 Government Accountability Office report on CSA, which Rajkovacz says there’s a good word for — damning] was identifying – the vast majority of violations had no correlation to crashes.”

Rajkovacz gave the example of a Chicago-based motor carrier who’d been involved in a crash, and subsequently claims were made on that carrier’s unsafe operation given a golden triangle — or “alert” status — in the Hours of Service Compliance BASIC in the CSA SMS. Digging down deeper into the category, however, Rajkovaz found that “almost all the violations were form-and-manner violations,” or paperwork errors, more or less. Rajkovacz is among many who’ve noted to FMCSA that “you’ll get a better picture on motor carrier safety fitness in Hours of Service if you lose the form and manner violations. Nobody’s every going to believe that a form and manner violation will be responsible for a crash.”

Yet FMCSA continues to cling to the belief that patterns of violations, whether with obvious crash relationship at the individual-violation level or not, are worth utilizing for scoring purposes — Rajkovacz summed their perspective up this way: “anyone who has a pattern of violating the rules is a risk” for a crash.

And so trucking goes to Congress … “I’ll think you’re going to see more of this, especially if the Fall election gives the Republicans control of both houses,” Rajkovaz says. “Other than that, right now, my opinion is there’s zero chance this will ever get through a Democratically controlled Senate. I’d eat my hat if that happened, but I feel safe in that bet today.”

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