Not comprehensive enough: Trucking responds to FMCSA's proposed CSA-scores changes

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Updated Jun 27, 2023

Since February, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration has been fielding public comments on proposed changes to its CSA Safety Measurement System (SMS) carrier scoring system. That comment period closed last week with just 176 comments filed to the docket after a period during which carriers were invited to preview how the changes might affect their scores. 

Overall, trucking groups were generally in favor of the proposed changes, while also noting more could be done to improve the system. The Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, however, said it was “disappointed that the agency’s proposed modifications to CSA/SMS fall short of the comprehensive systemic overhauls needed to accurately identify at-risk carriers and reduce truck crashes.”

Likewise, attorney Hank Seaton, filing comments on behalf of a number of trucking and freight organizations, including the National Association of Small Trucking Companies, among others, said the proposed changes will not improve accuracy and fairness to prioritize carriers for safety enforcement like FMCSA claims. Instead, “it will carry forward the major statistical and legal flaws of the old version, and in fact will prejudice the ability of small carriers to obtain sufficient SMS data -- good or bad -- to be accurately measured,” he said.

Seaton added that what is required to fix the system is “not a mere reboot of SMS but a complete re-do of the agency’s system for making safety fitness determinations.”

[Related: Fit or unfit? FMCSA keying in on problems with 'Conditional' safety rating limbo]

Category reorganization

The proposed changes include reorganizing the current categories of measurement, renaming them simply “safety categories,” to better identify specific problems. The agency also proposed to combine the current 959 violations used in SMS, plus 14 additional violations not currently used, into 116 new violation groups.

The American Trucking Associations said it supports the proposal to reorganize the categories, but suggested that FMCSA instead refer to them as “Compliance Categories” to further simplify the terminology, in line with how the SMS was originally conceived -- a way to measure relative regulatory compliance through which state enforcement departments and the agency itself could prioritize investigatory work. 

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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.

The agency also proposes to split the Vehicle Maintenance category in two -- Vehicle Maintenance: Driver Observed and Vehicle Maintenance. The new "Driver Observed" category would be 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.”

Regarding these reorganization proposals, OOIDA said that while the changes would “be more practical, they do not help FMCSA’s overall mission statement ‘to reduce crashes, injuries and fatalities involving large trucks and buses.’” The group added that the updated categories underscore that “many of these categories have virtually no correlation to crash risk.”

For the separation of “Driver Observed” and “Vehicle Maintenance” categories to be effective, ATA said, additional scrutiny is needed on the “Driver Observed” violations. “FMCSA should work with industry to agree on which violations should be included in the driver observed category,” ATA said.

[Related: DataQs: Efforts to make truckers more than just victims of the inspection/crash-review process]

Violation severity weight changes

The proposal also includes changes to the system’s current 1-10 scale for violation severity weights, simplifying the scale to just a 1 or 2. Out-of-service violations for any safety category except Unsafe Driving will receive a 2, as will driver-disqualifying violations in the Unsafe Driving category. The agency also proposed changes to intervention thresholds.

Continuing on the notion of crash risk correlation, OOIDA said the severity weight proposals “should help to reduce FMCSA’s erroneous weighting,” but they don’t “change the fact that many of the violations found in the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations do not have a direct link to safety.”

ATA noted that simplifying the severity weights, while removing the arbitrariness of assigning the weights, “creates a new concern by grouping all violations into a single severity weight,” unless it’s an OOS or disqualifying violation, “regardless of the true severity of the actual violation.”

The Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance, representing inspectors across North America, said that while it understands the individual rationale behind the proposed changes, it has some concerns about unintended consequences. Violation grouping and the severity weight simplification “may not accurately reflect a motor carrier’s safety performance," CVSA said. "Under the proposed changes, a motor carrier whose driver is found to have multiple out-of-service conditions during an inspection could appear the same as a motor carrier whose driver is found with only one out-of-service condition, depending on which safety category the out-of-service condition belongs in.”

The Independent Carrier Safety Association (ICSA) said FMCSA is correct to change the current 1-10 rating system, but added the agency “must also take care to distinguish compliance violations from violations associated with crash risk.” Small fleets and those new to the business “should not be labeled as unsafe simply because they do not have staff or the experience to properly execute paperwork or follow regulatory procedures each and every time -- so long as they operate safely and do not pose a crash risk.”

Regarding intervention thresholds, OOIDA said it seeks more understanding on why FMCSA is raising the thresholds. “If a carrier has to be worse than 90% of their peers in order for the agency to prioritize them, as proposed for [Driver Fitness and HM Compliance categories], then why is FMCSA using this category at all to assess safety risk?” the group asked.

[Related: Proposed CSA-scores change a mixed bag, particularly for hours of service category]

Focus on recent violations

SMS currently assigns percentiles in the HOS Compliance, Vehicle Maintenance, and Driver Fitness BASICs if the last inspection in the past two years resulted in a violation. Under this standard, a carrier may be prioritized for intervention even if the carrier had no recent violation, FMCSA said.

The agency proposed to sharpen the focus on carriers with more recent violations by assigning percentiles only to carriers that had at least one violation in the safety category in the past 12 months, meaning that if all a carrier's violations in a particular safety category are 12 months or older, the carrier will not be assigned a percentile in that category.

CVSA said it agreed with the change to focus on more recent violations because “doing so will provide a more accurate assessment of the motor carrier’s current safety performance.”

OOIDA called this a “positive modification,” but noted FMCSA “should emphasize the need for law enforcement personnel to complete clean inspections and swiftly transmit that information. OOIDA members suffer when law enforcement does not upload clean inspections to SMS.”

ATA said its members are also in favor of the change but said it should apply to all safety categories. ATA said it believes this would help identify carriers “who are currently and most recently experiencing violations” as compared to carriers who have taken corrective action and had clean inspections since that time.

On the contrary, the Truck Safety Coalition blasted FMCSA for reducing the focus to just one year.

“FMCSA claims that this allows them to focus on carriers with the greatest safety risk,” the group said. “Every carrier does not receive a roadside inspection annually. If no new roadside inspection occurs for a carrier in 12 months or greater from their previous roadside inspection, those violations must remain and be calculated in its safety measurement scoring.”

[Related: Credit for clean: Finishing the job on violation-free inspections]

‘Geographic variation’

In its proposal, FMCSA said it considered, but did not include in the proposal, a model to account for geographic variation of carriers. The agency acknowledged that a consistent criticism of SMS has been that differences among state enforcement agencies in inspection and violation rates can lead to unfair SMS results for carriers that operate in higher-enforcement states.

Ultimately, however, FMCSA concluded “that incorporating a model to account for geographic variation would not improve the agency's ability to identify high risk carriers and would run contrary to the goals of the Motor Carrier Safety Assistance Program (MCSAP), the agency's grant program to support state and local efforts to reduce crashes involving CMVs.”

OOIDA noted that it was “disappointed” that FMCSA left out geographic variation from its proposal. The group argued that “accounting for geographic variation does not de-emphasize enforcement. Instead, this would help the agency, as well as the states, identify high-risk carriers.”

ATA also disagreed with FMCSA’s determination to leave geographic disparity out of the proposal, noting that “CSA SMS scores are often a reflection of where a motor carrier operates, not how safely it does so.” The group cited statistics from 2022 that show that approximately 84% of all violations in Texas were vehicle maintenance violations, while only 34% of violations issued in Indiana were vehicle maintenance violations.

[Related: A sharp rise in moving violations, as inspection numbers inch back to pre-COVID levels]

“While we acknowledge that certain violations may vary based on geographic location, vehicle maintenance violations should be assessed consistently regardless of where the vehicle is operated,” ATA said. “In this example, a motor carrier who operates predominantly in Texas is much more likely to receive a vehicle maintenance violation and therefore receive an elevated Vehicle Maintenance safety category,” adding that if the two carriers in the example were in the same safety group, the Indiana carrier “may enjoy a much better vehicle maintenance safety category score, not because their vehicles are in better working order, but because they operate in a state that does not prioritize vehicle maintenance violations as much as the other.”

Overdrive's long-running CSA's Data Trail series has borne these dynamics out time and again, analyzing wide disparities in inspection rates and violation prioritization across the nation. In 2022's central update, furthermore, the violations per inspection rate in Texas (2.8) was nearly twice that in Indiana (1.7). In a system that weights each violation equally, as FMCSA is proposing, carriers operating frequently on lanes in the Lone Star State thus might be seen to be that much more likely to be prioritized than similarly situated carriers with exposure to Indiana enforcement, regardless of violation category.   

Large fleet Schneider National (CCJ Top 250, No. 9) agreed with ATA and OOIDA, noting that “carriers should be scored on how they operate, and those scores should not be overly influenced by where the carrier operates.” Schneider added that, while states should be allowed -- and encouraged -- to identify areas of concern specific to their state, “the lack of uniformity between states creates a disconnect when it comes to carrier-to-carrier evaluation under the SMS,” which is one factor that can trigger an intervention, the carrier said.

[Related: House bill would require FMCSA to update carrier safety rating regs]