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DataQs reform: A 10% violation error rate should not be acceptable

Leander Headshot7
Updated Apr 3, 2022

Once again, the small fleet I own and operate has had a DataQs review/request for change to a violation that has been granted. In this case, the officer admitted that the “violation” was not intended to be encoded as such in our record, but rather just an item that she felt we needed to keep an eye on, as it were.

Though our DataQs challenge to that effect was initially rejected, the violation was corrected on our second try.

It involved a trailer tire that one of my drivers had previously brought to my attention, given a noticeable cut in the side wall. I personally inspected the tire and chose to leave it on the trailer because it was not a violation. These tires run about $500 apiece, and there's no reason to scrap one merely out of fear.

A month later, though, the driver received a violation that I disputed, explaining the cut wasn't deep enough to have affected the underlying structure, there was no cord visibility, etc. The first response I got from the state of South Carolina about the tire was that the violation was marked on the report as something that we should keep an eye on, yet I continued to note that in its current condition, the tire was legal, and there is no mandate that we remove, replace or repair it. Wanting us to "monitor" the tire is much different than the tire being in violation.

As this all played out via the DataQs system for challenging violations, of course, the cut was being treated as a violation in the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration's Safety Measurement System with a negative impact on our CSA scores. It was enough to place our company over the “alert” threshold in a second category in the CSA Safety Measurement System. As a result, a brokerage we did well upward of $200,000 in business with last year essentially cut us off. 

[Related: How to mount an effective DataQs challenge

Finally, after several days, the officer responded, "After a further review and more eyes on your picture [of the tire], it was decided to remove the violation.”

The advisory that pops up when you visit the FMCSA's CSA SMS website notes that category scores for carriers were withheld from public view as a result of the 2015 FAST Act legislation, yet the advisory obscures the very real effect the continued public availability of violation information has on carrier-broker relationships. With violation information publicly accessible, scores remain available to anyone willing to pay for them through any number of third parties.

This portion of the FMCSA’s program is flawed and is costing our company, and probably many others, the ability to secure business. In essence, agency publishing of inspection violation information is having a negative financial impact on our ability to conduct daily business.

While I don’t know if this is the agency’s intention or not, publishing violation information needs to be considered for discontinuance. As you can see, not only are we being negatively impacted, but it is partially due to a violation added in error.

Similar circumstances have been seen four other times in the recent past for items that have been corrected in our record.

[Related: Red tape, deaf ears: Criticism of FMCSA's DataQs crash- and inspection-info review system mounts

If withholding violation information in total is not in the cards, we could improve the whole process with a couple tweaks to how and when violations are displayed/made available to the public: 

  1. Once a violation is reversed, credit should be given in the form of negative points, for an amount of time equal to the negative-impact time the erroneous violation affected the carrier. If the weighting of a violation carried with it 24 total points for three months and it was successfully DataQ’d and removed, the carrier should then benefit for three months with a -24 overall credit in the category. This is fair.
  2. Or, as the case may be, do not assess points until DataQ challenges have been exhausted.

An obvious problem with No. 2 is that there’s no way of knowing whether any violation will be challenged, and given determinations can be appealed, it's difficult to set a challenge end date. In my case, for example, on three different occasions resolving a DataQ challenge took an act of state officials to finally get the corrections made over a long period of time — two working with attorneys general, and one with a state police captain.

Inspectors may have badges and training, but we have proven that there is possibly a 10% error rate in the inspection reporting. (We have 12 trucks and have now successfully reconsidered five inspection reports over just a few years.) We’ve not had 50 inspections over that time period.

This is high, and very problematic. I believe it’s high time for corrective action on the agency’s part. If the FMCSA wants to publish information about a company’s ability to perform safely, then that information had better be correct.

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