Roadside inspections, safety scores should be 'preventive,' not punitive: Owner-operator Warren McCurdy

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Updated Feb 7, 2024

Owner-operator Warren McCurdy, headquartered with his wife and business partner, Susan, in La Crosse, Wisconsin, has a bone to pick with the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration's CSA safety-scoring program and the roadside inspection system itself. After a trailer tire lost air in transit sufficient to take the tire at least partway off the rim -- the trailer empty, the tire problem unnoticed by McCurdy before crossing a Washington scale -- the owner-operator's leasing carrier assessed points for the violation modeled on the FMCSA's internal Driver Safety Measurement System. 

The points were just a few shy of enough to void McCurdy's lease with the carrier, he was told.

For those who don't recall the early days of the CSA safety-measurement program, the A in the acronym stands for accountability. Yet this sort of accountability isn't, McCurdy felt, what roadside inspections were designed for. The inspector in this case in Washington State did his job to the letter, and caught the in-transit flattened tire in plenty time to save any real damaging, unsafe outcome.

For all that, McCurdy is thankful. "I think that these inspections are good. They should be preventive things," he said. "Nobody wants to go down the road with flat tires."

Warren McCurdy's 2019 Mack AnthemOwner-operator McCurdy pulls leased to Bennett Motor Express currently with this 2019 Mack Anthem and 53-foot Trailmobile flatbed conestoga.

Yet, he added, "I don't think we should be penalized for something that is not something that you did intentionally."

In today's edition of the Overdrive Radio podcast, owner-operator McCurdy, at 50 years trucking and with 3.6 million safe miles behind him, gave the example of a speeding infraction for an appropriate application of the term violation. "A 'violation' is something that you do intentionally," he said, arguing against the currently very broad application of that term. "If you go through a red light, that's a violation. If you go 75 mph in a 65 mph zone, you know it, and that's a violation. I didn't know that tire was flat."  

Howes logoOverdrive Radio's sponsor is Howes, longtime provider of fuel treatments like its Howes Diesel Treat anti-gel and Lifeline rescue treatment to get you through the colest temps, likewise its all-weather Diesel Defender, among other products.The notion of intentionality should be applied at both motor carrier and operator levels, too, he added. There's a reason carriers like his own assess those points -- because they are incurring the same level of severity weighting in the Carrier Safety Measurement System.

Potential changes to the Carrier SMS notwithstanding (FMCSA isn't looking at those same changes for their internal Driver SMS), the podcast this week dives back into what’s at issue in cases like these, in which carriers subject to the severity weighting system for violations pass that on. Relying on the federal points system to assess and prevent damage to their own scores, they then use their own systems to hold drivers and owner-operators to a degree of accountability themselves.

[Related: FMCSA offering 'kinder, gentler' approach to safety scoring? Not if automated inspections go live]

Overdrive Radio logoSubscribe to the podcast on your listening platform of choice for early access to the weekly Overdrive Radio series -- it drops typically every Friday to the feed and follows here at OverdriveOnline.com and in Overdrive's Youtube and Facebook feeds the following week. You can subscribe for first access via Apple and Google podcasts, Spotify, TuneIn, most anywhere you listen.Susan McCurdy tried her hand at the DataQs system in an attempt to contain the damage in this case by challenging the violation. But given the inspector was doing what he should have done here -- alerting the McCurdys to the problem tire on the trailer, conducting an inspection, then reporting the results into the federal system as required -- there was nothing the DataQs process could do to correct the fundamental nature of the situation. More fundamentally, though, it’s the very nature of the CSA scoring system that makes accountability problematic for owner-operator McCurdy here. Nobody indeed intends to run around with flat tires. With respect to any violation, McCurdy urges regulators take a long hard look at what they’re holding carriers and drivers accountable for by scoring them as they do. Take a listen: 

[Related: How to DataQ to challenge a violation]

Transcript

Warren McCurdy: I think that these inspections are good. They should be preventative things because nobody wants to drive down the road with flat tires. You could go down the road with a brand new tire and have it go flat. I don't think we should be penalized for something that is not something that you did intentionally

Todd Dills: Today. Owner-operator Warren McCurdy, whom you heard there talking about how federal and state truck inspections ought to work. … Owner-operator McCurdy tells the story of how his business was thrown right up against the possibility of devastating consequences by a system of "safety evaluation", that does nothing to take into account that intentionality of which he spoke.

I'm Todd Dills and yes, I'm talking about the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration's CSA safety measurement system which scores carriers based on a violation lookback two years in the rear view. And internal to FMCSA, a driver safety measurement system too looks at drivers on a three-year timetable, assigning severity weights in the form of points to various violations as it does in the carrier safety measurement system. In owner-operator McCurdy's case, though he's grateful the Washington State inspector saw what he himself couldn't possibly have detected at the very back of his then empty flatbed trailer. ...

Warren McCurdy: You're talking about the infamous flat tire.

Todd Dills: That's right. Though he's glad the officer alerted him to that tire, the subsequent inspection and the noted high-severity violation had other consequences that he just wasn't expecting, coming quite close to meaning the end of his lease with his longtime motor carrier. The podcast this week dives back into what's at issue in cases like these, where carriers subject to the severity weighting system for violations pass that on to the systems to hold drivers and owner operators to a degree of accountability themselves, relying on the federal points system to assess and prevent damage to their own scores.

McCurdy's wife and longtime business partner, Susan, tried her hand at the data cues system in a vain attempt to contain the damage in this case by challenging the violation. But given the inspector was doing what he should have done here, alerting McCurdy to the problem's tire on his trailer, conducting an inspection and reporting the results into the federal system as required. There was really nothing data cues was going to be able to help correct but the fundamental nature of the situation. More fundamentally though, is the very nature of the CSA scoring system that makes accountability problematic for owner-operator McCurdy Here. Nobody indeed intends to run around with flat tires.

With respect to any violation, McCurdy urged regulators to take a long hard look at what they're holding carriers and drivers accountable for by scoring them as they do. He's determined meanwhile to do what he can to make a difference.

Warren McCurdy: You find yourself sitting on the sidelines griping about this and that and the other thing. And then a lot of people do that and I was just as guilty as anybody else.

Todd Dills: After his recent experience, though, things are different.

Warren McCurdy: But you come to a point where you realize that, hey, if somebody doesn't know it's broke, it's never going to get fixed.

Todd Dills: On the other side of the break, we'll dive into McCurdy's half-decade history trucking, with an eye on an eventual retirement later in the year. If, that is, he doesn't just buy a new truck. You'll see what I mean after this word from Overdrive Radio’s sponsor.

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Todd Dills: And that's Howes, H-O-W-E-S. HowesProducts.com.

Here's owner-operator Warren McCurdy with some of his very long history trucking as an owner-operator to start.

Warren McCurdy: Well, my name is Warren McCurdy. My wife is Susan and we're not a team, but we operate together. We live in La Crosse, Wisconsin and we've always trucked out of here. We've been with a few different companies, but mainly we were with Landstar for 23-and-a-half-years and now we've been with Bennett Motor Express for the last four. We took this winter off and been out here long enough that I don't want to compete with winter anymore on the icy roads. We've been out here for about, all total, about 50 years, went 3.6 million accident free miles and we probably will truck this coming summer and hang it up this fall.

Todd Dills: Have you been thinking about this year as a retirement date for you for a long time? Or is this just a new decision that you've arrived at?

Warren McCurdy: Well, it's kind of funny because we say we've retired four times, and it seems like every time we retire then we turn around and buy a new truck. And so, whenever we tell anybody around here that we're to retire, why they ask, "Well, when's the new truck being delivered?" But we think that this is going to be the last year. Trucking is a lot different today than it was 40 years ago, 45 years ago.

Todd Dills: You told me yesterday when we were talking that you guys are hauling now, I think it's in a 2019 Mack Anthem.

Warren McCurdy: Yes, sir.

Beautiful truck.

Todd Dills: Yeah, it is. You sent me that picture of it. It is a beauty. And tell me, just walk me through the equipment that you guys are running now and what kind of freight you're hauling for Bennett.

Warren McCurdy: I started trucking with a reefer and I didn't really care for that all that much, and then I switched to a dry van and these were as company drivers and then that didn't appeal to me either. I didn't care for the people, the dock people for the most part that we were dealing with. And kept on going and went with Anderson and that's when we switched to flatbed and I really liked that a lot better. The guys we were trucking with were a lot easier to get along with. And of course back in those days they were the teachers than I was the pupil because being new to trucking, I had a lot to learn and you learn from the old guys that are on the road. You ask questions and that's how it went.

And now like I say, we were with Landstar for 23-and-a-half years. We made a lot of friends there and we still haul Landstar freight because freight between Bennett and Landstar the haul is compatible and they haul each and other's freight, which is really nice because we have some agents in both companies that like our operation and the way we deal with customers. And so, occasionally we get a call from an agent that says, "This customer wants you to come and get their freight," and that's always nice to hear.

What we haul, we haul a lot of transformers, we haul a lot of air conditioners. There's air conditioners within 75 miles of La Crosse. And we haul equipment conveyors for a couple of companies, freight liner cabs to dealers, and we get into some interesting freight once in a while. We hauled a couple of ocean-going buoys out of Alabama. They were going to Alaska and we wanted them to let us deliver them, but they said "No, at Seattle, we've got to put them on a boat and take them up there." But they're so huge, there was only two of them that fit on a 53-foot flatbed.

Todd Dills: You guys have that Conestoga set up on the 53-footer, right?

Warren McCurdy: That's what we have now. We had an open flat for quite a while. And then when the Conestoga started coming on the scene, why, we went to looking at them and the ideal appeal because I found it harder to tarp, especially if you had machinery, and machinery and different items like that are very hard on plastic tarps, spend a lot of time repairing holes. Also, we were hauling a lot of stuff for Boeing and Lockheed Martin and they don't like tarps touching their stuff, and the Conestogas work really well for that, and they like to see you come in with a Conestoga

Todd Dills: Come a long way since the days of the 300-pound single piece canvas tarp, right? We were talking a little bit about that yesterday.

Warren McCurdy: Yeah. As I think back on that, I don't know how I survived that. Of course, you always had to have them put up there with a forklift and you had to get them rolled up so that you could ... When you were up there you had to get them rolled out so that you could get them opened in the front the way they were supposed to be. If you didn't and you had to turn them around up there it was pretty difficult.

Todd Dills: When did you buy your first truck? Was that before or after you and Susan were together?

Warren McCurdy: That was before. I had a truck probably I believe in 1968. I bought a cab over, Mack from La Crosse and that's when I was doing reefer work. But my first wife was a type-one diabetic and her health went downhill, so I put a driver in the truck for a while and I went through two or three drivers, a couple of them weren't very honest. I finally got a good one and he lasted and decided that he wanted to be home more with his wife. And I got up one morning and his truck was parked in front of the house with a note on the steering wheel, fully loaded.

So, I had to deliver that and we ended up selling that truck and I did something for a little while because I couldn't be away from her. I lost her at open heart surgery and I was single for five years. And Susan only lived a block-and-a-half away from our house when I was married to my first wife and we ended up meeting at a singles club and the rest, as they say, is history. We met for the first time on a dance floor because she likes to dance and I like to dance. And up until the last couple of years, there's not many dance halls around here anymore, so the dancing has fell by the wayside.

Todd Dills: Has she been on the truck with you continuously through the years?

Warren McCurdy: I would say 99.9% of the time. I did take a load to San Diego by myself for, I don't remember why she had to stay home. And then she was home when we bought a trailer and she had to, because we had to move, and she was remodeling the inside of the trailer, so she was home while I was trucking. But we do much better with her on the truck because she does all of the logistic work. She gets the directions, she calls the customer, she calls the shipper and the receiver. She does all the phone calling with the agents. She operates the laptop. I don't do well with computers and loads come and go on the load board, so obviously I can't do it while I'm driving the truck and she can. And that way it works out a lot better financially. And at that time we were newly married, so we didn't want to be apart. We wanted to be together, so it works much better, yeah.

Todd Dills: What year did you guys get married?

Warren McCurdy: It'll be 35 years ago this coming June.

Todd Dills: Here's a big congrats to the McCurdys in advance. I then asked Warren to tell the story that led us to this conversation to begin with. The infamous flat tire, indeed, in a severity weighting system and a safety measurement protocol that, to say the least, does not take into account the totality of the circumstances, and whether a driver could reasonably be expected to have discovered a violation prior to encountering it during inspection. The story starts in Portland, Oregon.

Warren McCurdy: We were loaded at the Jubitz truck stop overnight, due to deliver near the airport in Portland, and we did that. You do a pre-trip inspection in the morning. Everything was fine. We unloaded and we had a load to pick up the next morning in Spokane, so we immediately headed in that direction. When you leave Portland, you go about 35, 40 miles and you go through an Oregon scale. And we went through an Oregon scale and nobody said a word, so I assumed that that tire was not flat at that time because it was fairly obvious. I mean, it was off the rims.

Todd Dills: Quick FYI here. The eventual flat in question discovered later was on the inside wheel of a pair of duals in the driver's side at the very back of the 53-foot flatbed Conestoga. As Warren McCurdy notes here, when he crossed that Oregon scale, he went through it without a problem.

Warren McCurdy: Maybe it went flat after that because they didn't say anything and then we never stopped for anything. And when we got to Umatilla, of course, we got on 395 going north and across the river into the Washington scale where we got the red light and the officer told us we had a flat tire, which resulted in an inspection of the truck, which they did. They also found a running light that had went out. This resulted in a total of 16 points. Not 16 points, 12 points.

Todd Dills: That's referring to the severity weighting of violations in the safety measurement system. In this case, that's eight for the tire, two for the lamp plus another two for the out of service condition of the flat tire.

Warren McCurdy: Under the rules of the FMCSA that's tripled, so now we have 36 points

Todd Dills: Violations in both motor carrier and driver safety measurement systems initially are tripled to account for their recency. They carry less weight over time. In most of what follows, McCurdy references the driver system where a tripling of the violations weight falls to a doubling after year one of that violation appearing on the record. Then to just standard weight after the second year.

Warren McCurdy: Got the tire put on, a new tire about $660, and proceeded to Richville where we spent the night and went in to get loaded the next day. And then our problems really started because once we got loaded, the truck wouldn't start and everything went downhill from there. We had to get a wrecker, hauled us over to the Mack dealer, chat for two-and-a-half days to get it fixed, and proceeded.

Todd Dills: That was unrelated to the flat tire, but nonetheless, it's like when it rains it pours, right. That was something to do with the ignition and/or the electrical-

Warren McCurdy: Yeah, we had a short in a wire. When we got out of there, Bennett called us and informed me that had I got 42 points, I would have been terminated. As I mentioned before, at this point I've driven over 3,000,000 miles accident free and claim free. I hadn't had any points for at least 25 years or so and I can't remember the last ticket, but apparently none of that counts for anybody. It's only that flat tire that counts and that's what our ongoing objection is.

Todd Dills: It's not a huge amount of miles and time between leaving the Jubitz truck stop and getting to that scale in Washington.

Warren McCurdy: From Portland to Umatilla it's about, I'll give or take 160 miles. And then it's about three miles to the station and from that point it's 125 to Spokane.

Todd Dills: Somewhere you picked something up in that tire because that thing, there was nothing wrong with that that morning. And yet the officer did, the officer, the inspector at the scale house in Washington did exactly what they're there for, which is to highlight, "Okay, you've got a problem that you don't know about yet." But because of that you're the one that takes the penalty essentially, and no one has, the carrier does too for that matter that you're hauling for. I mean, I guess that's why they put those kinds of stipulations in their contracts to incentivize folks to do all the work necessary to avoid any violations because they're getting assessed for the same thing, obviously. But it is a system that it penalizes. It seems to penalize you for things that you have no control over, essentially.

Warren McCurdy: None, because we have no representation on the FMCSA and they set the rules and ...

Todd Dills: You've spent a good bit of time talking to your state representatives, and then also I believe working with the association that you're a member of, I think it's Owner-operator Independent Drivers Association. Talk a little bit about that, what you've done in terms of those conversations and how you've tried to take a little bit more of an advocate's role in this arena.

Warren McCurdy: You find yourself sitting on the sidelines griping about this and that and the other thing, and then you hardly ... A lot of people do that and I was just as guilty as anybody else. But you come to a point where you realize that, hey, if somebody doesn't know it's broke, it's never going to get fixed. And so that's what we got these guys for and they have offices right here in La Crosse. And we met, we did meet with a actual local assemblyman from the State of Wisconsin on a different subject, but the federal people we have only met with their office help. We haven't met with the actual representatives yet.

But the people we've met with have been very receptive to what we've been telling them. And I have been filling out an application for alternate board of directors member with the OIDA, and I don't know whether I'll be voted in or not, but if I am, well, that gives me another place to vocalize and support them, and maybe we will help meeting with my local people.

Todd Dills: McCurdy then referenced rulemakings in process to require speed limiters, automatic braking systems and side undergrad guards as particularly important to engage on to at least limit the damage of any implementation, if not get the rules abandoned altogether. Personally, he felt most strongly about the adverse safety implications of automatic braking systems, worried too about widespread speed limiting's potential impact on highway traffic flow and subsequent road rage instance. Beside under ride guards, well, that would increase the cost of equipment unnecessarily. He felt with little real benefit on the safety front. As for that trailer tire, again, inside tire of a dual pair under an empty flatbed with the tire flat to the point of being off the rim but not noticeable from the cab of the truck, McCurdy said, he felt ...

Warren McCurdy: It could have went several hundred miles without, until I got loaded, it wouldn't have been in trouble or it wouldn't have caused any trouble. No.

Todd Dills: Carrier and driver being held accountable in the CSA SMS with all those points associated with the flat violation might be made a little more reasonable with the new weighting system there FMCSA proposed for the carrier CSASMS. Violations in general under the new system are weighted more evenly there. If the agency didn't concern itself with those changes, when it comes to the driver safety measure system, that SMS isn't available to the public and operates for enforcement purposes entirely in the background. McCurdy's example though makes clear some trucking companies have used it and those severity weights is indicators of performance with tie-ins with their lease contracts.

Warren McCurdy: I think the terminology is wrong. A violation is something you do intentionally. I mean, if you go through a red light that's a violation. You've more or less done that intentionally. If you go 75 miles an hour in a 65 mile an hour zone it, you know it, that's a violation. I didn't know that tire was flat. I don't know that a light burned out. If they're all lit when I look at them and then it goes out in between, I guess you're going to have-

Todd Dills: You're not going to see this in your mirror, right?

Warren McCurdy: Right. I think that these inspections are good. They should be preventative things because nobody wants to drive down the road with flat tires. You could go down the road with a brand new tire and have it go flat. I don't think we should be penalized for something that is not something that you did intentionally.

Todd Dills: That would require a totality of the circumstances look at every violation. And everybody just wants to, they want the easiest way forward, so it's just like, okay, let's put a number on every single violation and just call it a day, right? But these things have real consequences.

Warren McCurdy: Well, I've said before that members of the FMCSA don't understand. They wouldn't know one truck from another, but I think standardization would help. I have been out East and went through a scale and the guy said, stopped me, and he said, "I think you've got a headlight out." I said, "Really?" He said, "Yep." That's when we had bulbs and we could change them. He said, "Have you got a new bulb with you?" And I said, "Yeah." He said, "Park it in a new bulb, put in a new bulb and have a nice day." That was the end of it. That was a preventative situation and to me was handled right.

Todd Dills: I mean, as was the inspection out in Washington, right? Something [inaudible 00:24:46]

Warren McCurdy: The officer was very professional. He was very professional, he was very civil. He wasn't condescending at all. He was doing his job the way he was supposed to do it, and he did what he was supposed to do. You cannot let a truck go through there with a flat tire like that, and I had no problems with that. And we had a discussion with the scale master at one point, a couple three days after that, and I told him, I said, "The officer was very professional. He should be commended on that." And it's not them, it's the system.

Todd Dills: A system in which points for the violations follow both McCurdy and his leasing carrier around now for subsequent years, as if they truly meant something with respect to safety. McCarty thinks the answer to these issues, as suggested earlier, is through engagement. Really getting some representation of trucking industry members with hard won experience and a place in the bodies that write the rules and design the systems

In order to get a more fair system in place. I mean, I know that Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration and all the trucking associations are in constant communication with each other, and yet you don't see career or former career truck drivers often actually taking positions within the agency on a full-time basis. And there's probably a reason for that because they're career truck drivers and/or owner-operators for a reason, they love doing it. But someone like yourself who has an eye on the end of a trucking career, could be called upon to participate in that system. Give advice. Even ... would you see yourself taking a full-time position as an advisor and/or someone working with the FMCSA in Wisconsin, for instance, because they all have division offices obviously?

Warren McCurdy: I told somebody, in fact, when we met with Ben Orton, a representative the other last week, I said, "I'd be happy to testify." No, I wouldn't want to live in DC or out east, no.

Todd Dills: You don't want to go work full time for the agency, but you're welcome. We'd love to hear your input.

Warren McCurdy: This is somewhat like taxation without representation because they're setting the rules and the regulations like they did with the ELD machines. Well, that made $2 billion for the industry that produces those machines, and they sold it as being a safety device. And I suggest that it's not safety, it's just money. There's a lot of issues that could be corrected and made a lot better if they would have some people, and let's face it, there's truckers out there that probably know a lot more than I do. Maybe they've forgot more than I know. I have no idea, but I know they're out there.

Todd Dills: To its credit to an extent, FMCSA has in fact made moves toward more direct engagement with those working actively in the industry through somewhat recent years, including through its driver advisory subcommittee to its influential Motor Carrier Safety Advisory Committee, though neither have met recently yet. There's also the truck leasing task force I wrote about a couple of weeks back dedicated to the singular issue of lease purchase contract inequities, as well as the Women of Trucking advisory board. Both of those established after being required by Congress.

Maybe, just maybe, it's time for a CSA SMS advisory committee with plenty in the way of driver and owner operator representation. Whatever the case, McCurdy hopes I know direct engagement continues to grow, with the ultimate result of a better system for owner operators, drivers, motor carriers. Big thanks to Warm McCurdy for his time for this episode.

Overdrive Radio is out there on Spotify, SoundCloud, Apple and Google Podcasts. Tune in most any podcasting platform, subscribe to it so you don't miss an episode, and you find me in all of our episodes via overdrive online.com/overdrive-radio. Big thanks for listening.

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