Proposed CSA-scores change a mixed bag, particularly for hours of service category

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Updated Mar 24, 2023
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FMCSA's proposed CSA-scores changes remain under a preview-and-comment period through May 16. Early feedback from small fleets who've examined the impact of the changes on their own scores presents a mixed bag of outcomes.

Owner-operators and fleets still have two months to comment on proposed changes to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s CSA carrier Safety Measurement System, which ranks carriers with a percentile in each of seven categories of measurement, from "Unsafe Driving" and HOS categories to "Vehicle Maintenance" and the "Crash Indicator," among others. 

As of March 14, just 61 comments had been filed on the public docket. Comments can be made here through May 16, and FMCSA has offered motor carriers of all sizes the ability to preview just how the proposed changes would affect their scores. (Carriers will need to log in with their account and DOT-issued PIN.)

Comments so far on the public docket for the change proposal, and interviews with carriers who've logged in to check their scores in the preview, revealed continued concern about small carriers' scoring. Some carriers, though, expressed general appreciation for some of the changes designed in part to simplify the system and offer carriers a tool they might use for their own back-office improvement.  

Among changes to the percentile-ranking system, FMCSA is proposing to reorganize the current categories of measurement, renaming them simply “safety categories,” to better identify specific problems. The agency proposed to combine the current 959 violations used in SMS, plus 14 additional violations not currently used, into 116 new violation groups.

FMCSA wants to move the entire Controlled Substances/Alcohol category, as well as all violations for operating while out-of-service (OOS), into the Unsafe Driving category to “help focus FMCSA’s investigative resources on carriers with higher crash rates,” FMCSA said.

[Related: FMCSA proposes long-overdue CSA carrier Safety Measurement System revamp]

Amber Jenkins, safety director for Henderson, Kentucky-based Silver Creek Transportation, said she could see the wisdom of that change, and that other tweaks in the system, judging by the carrier preview, look to be weighing in the positive for Silver Creek's percentile rankings in most categories..

Among those other changes, the agency wants to split the Vehicle Maintenance category in two -- preserving the basic Vehicle Maintenance category but splitting out Vehicle Maintenance: Driver Observed. The new "Driver Observed" category is reserved for roadside-observed “violations that could reasonably be observed by a driver” during a pre- or post-trip inspection, “or detected as part of a Walk-Around (Level 2) roadside inspection,” the agency said.

With the maintenance category split this way, and with 1-10-point severity weights gone but for a doubling of a single 1 weight for any out-of-service violation, both maintenance categories are considerably lower for Silver Creek than the single category under the current scoring system. "It gives us more wiggle room. We’re well below the intervention threshold on both of those," she said, referring to the percentile at and above which FMCSA prioritizes carriers for investigative action. As a safety director for the 30-truck fleet, too, she felt the new categories and violation groups for those vehicle violations offered a better tool for her to "help me break it down. Is that something I can talk to the driver about? Or should I go to my shop guys? This helps me know where my coaching skills are going to have to go." 

Commenter Riky Von Honaker agreed with Jenkins that adding a “Driver Observed” maintenance category is a good move “in theory.” At once, he questioned whether the agency would also similarly adjust its internal (non-public) Driver Safety Measurement System (DSMS). 

Von Honaker, with 25 years in trucking all told, the last 12 years in safety and compliance working mostly with owner-operators and small fleets, noted he objected to renaming the categories from the current mouthful of a term -- Behavioral Analysis and Safety Improvement Categories, often shortened as BASICs. “I see no benefit in changing category terminology from ‘BASICs’ to ‘Safety Categories,’" he said. He felt identifying measurement categories solely under the "safety" umbrella would do nothing other than offer "a benefit to attorneys to use this system against carriers.” 

Von Honaker’s biggest concern with the proposal was in the changes to severity weights. He felt FMCSA's implementation of violation grouping, with old severity weights in place, would address the “concerns of the severity points in most categories,” he said. “And if you keep those values.... I believe the model would prove to show very accurate.”

As it is, FMCSA proposed only to count each violation equally, unless it's an OOS violation, in which case its value is doubled. Oversimplifying the severity weights, Von Honaker believed, won't “distinguish carriers that should be targeted, only those who get the most violations.”

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

Jenkins felt the violation-weight simplification and grouping changes, however, might be working in Silver Creek's favor, given generally lower scores in most categories in the preview.  

Zoom Transportation Inc. noted in its comments that the proposed system “is excellent in terms of classification and reducing percentile jumps,” a long-known issue for the smallest carriers that FMCSA has tried to address with these changes with new comparison groups for carriers. Zoom added it felt those percentile jumps, though, won't entirely disappear. 

“For the ratings to be more effective, it would need to include a variable that respects fleet size (driver pool and power units) in relation to the performance measure, because if the threshold for inspection is the same for all fleet sizes it will be much easier for a larger company to not have an alert comparative to a smaller company,” Zoom said.

Among other carriers who had gone online to preview how their data would appear under the proposed changes was Tobico Logistics LLC, which said it doesn’t feel the changes “appropriately reflect a carrier's efforts to eliminate violations and therefore achieve lower scores.”

The company said it has been working in recent years to reduce its number of violations, particularly in the Hours of Service measurement category, and under the current methodology was able to lose the alert the company had in addition to lowering its Inspection Selection System (ISS) score by more than half.

On the preview site, however, the company “was very disappointed to see our Hours of Service percentile still way above threshold and not much different to the previous month. This surely cannot be more representative of our recent performance than the current methodology,” the company added.

See how each state stacks up with this comprehensive report

Understand your inspection risk with these national rankings for inspection intensity, highly variable across the United States, as well as where an inspection is most likely to result in a violation in this report from the editors of Overdrive and CCJ in partnership with sister data company RigDig.

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• Moving violations, such as speeding
• Hours of service
• Brakes, lights and other vehicle violations
• Clean inspections
• Violations per inspection

Silver Creek's Jenkins noted HOS-violation issues have arisen at her fleet as well in recent times, with a switch in electronic logging device providers being something of a learning curve for operators. Yet under the CSA-changes preview, Silver Creek's HOS score was in fact lower than in the current system. She felt changes in the severity weights were probably helping them with scoring on violations incurred in recent history related to issues drivers were having when saving annotations correctly for the adverse-conditions exception.  

[Related: FMCSA reminds drivers of emergency hours exception]

Another fleet, North American Transport Services, though, saw HOS-category results similar to those of Tobico Logistics. “I reviewed my CSA prioritization preview and even though I don't have any alerts in any categories right now, and have been alert- free after eight years of hard work, the new methodology is now placing me over threshold in HOS,” the commenter for the company said.

The company added that it runs daily reports for HOS violations, including checking for improper personal conveyance using dashcams to ensure drivers aren’t using it illegally. “Our violations are usually due to drivers forgetting how to transfer logs or certifying, not many false logs or rule violations. We only have in a period of 24 months 29 HOS violations out of 418 inspections,” the company added.

Carla Peacock said the new SMS platform “appears to be easier to navigate, and the scoring does not appear to be as harsh on the carriers. It also spells out in the details how the total numbers were determined,” which Peacock said “is helpful for the carrier” so “they can tweak their program to focus on the higher penalized infractions.”

Peacock argued, however, that there should be a way to equalize the penalties for smaller carriers. “A company that has three power units that gets all three stopped within a 12-month period is assessed a higher score than a 100-truck fleet that has three power units stopped in the same 12-month period. The small company is 100% inspected and the large fleet is .03%.”

She added that “commercial trucking most definitely is not one size fits all, but unfortunately that is how FMCSA addresses commercial trucking. Most all DOT officers do not realize that everything they mention on the CMV ‘ticket,’ whether it is a warning or a violation that carries a fine, is assigned a penalty value on the SMS system.”

[Related: The toughest 15 states for hours of service violations; Since ELD mandate, risk's shifted West on the map]

The percentile scores in the SMS that FMCSA's proposed changes fundamentally are designed to address have been pulled from public view for nearly a decade at this point, after Congress directed the agency to improve the ranking system in 2015 FAST Act legislation. The legislation removed carriers’ percentile rankings in the seven SMS categories and required FMCSA to identify the program’s faults, develop a plan to fix them and then implement those fixes before the system could go fully live again. Though all of that history predates Amber Jenkins' tenure as Silver Creek safety director, she's fully aware that with these changes the FMCSA is responding to those Congressional directives. Asked if these changes appeared to be sufficient improvement to have satisfied issues earmarked for improvement by Congress back then, Jenkins felt the current approach to display carrier data should remain, without percentile rankings in the view of the public. 

Reflecting on her early days with the company, she noted "it took me quite a while to know" what "the percentiles and the measurements" in the CSA SMS really mean. Posing a hypothetical, she asked, does 66% in vehicle maintenance mean a company's "running junk equipment" for over half of the fleet? "Really, it’s just a few particular violations" for a small carrier. "I think it would probably just be easier not to have the numbers out there. It's too much" in the way of evaluative scoring "given to people who don’t know what they mean." --Todd Dills contributed to this report   

[Related: FMCSA proposes long-overdue CSA carrier Safety Measurement System revamp]