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GAO: FMCSA needs to modify CSA program to improve crash risk ability

The GAO recommended that FMCSA revise the current Safety Management System methodology to better account for limitations in drawing comparisons of safety performance information across carriers. This carrier has no scores in several categories because of the lack of inspections. (The Trucker file photo)

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WASHINGTON — The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration's Compliance, Safety, Accountability (CSA) program may have helped the agency contact or investigate more motor carrier companies and provided a broader range of safety benefits than the previous SafeStat, but the present system also might have led FMCSA to identify many carriers as high risk that were later never involved in a crash.

This causes the agency to miss opportunities to intervene with carriers that were involved in crashes, the GAO said in a recent report to Congress which included in the Consolidated Appropriations Act a mandate for GAO to monitor the implementation of CSA.

As a result of its findings, the GAO recommended that FMCSA revise the current Safety Management System methodology to better account for limitations in drawing comparisons of safety performance information among carriers.

The SMS is used to develop CSA scores for carriers, which in turn — among other things — determines which carriers might be a crash risk.

In addition, the GAO said determination of a carrier's fitness to operate should account for limitations in available performance information.

The GAO said Department of Transportation officials, while not agreeing totally with the report, had agreed to consider the recommendations.

“FMCSA faces at least two challenges in reliably assessing safety risk for the majority of carriers,” the GAO said. “First, for SMS to be effective in identifying carriers more likely to crash, the violations that FMCSA uses to calculate SMS scores should have a strong predictive relationship with crashes. However, based on GAO's analysis of available information, most regulations used to calculate SMS scores are not violated often enough to strongly associate them with crash risk for individual carriers. Second, most carriers lack sufficient safety performance data to ensure that FMCSA can reliably compare them with other carriers.”

FMCSA responded late Monday afternoon that “Under the Obama Administration, we have more than tripled the number of unsafe bus and truck companies we have taken off the road, and we continue to work aggressively to improve motor carrier safety overall.

“The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration uses a strategic, data-driven approach to identify and prioritize high-risk carriers for investigations.”

The agency said it will “carefully consider the GAO's latest recommendations,” although “research shows that CSA is already more effective at identifying motor carriers with a greater risk of crashing than the system we replaced in 2010.”

The American Trucking Associations agreed wholeheartedly with the GAO’s findings.

“The GAO’s review of FMCSA’s Compliance, Safety, Accountability program was comprehensive, thoughtful and balanced,” said ATA President and CEO Bill Graves. “While ATA has long supported CSA’s objectives, we can’t help but agree with GAO’s findings that the scores produced by the program don’t present an accurate or precise assessment of the safety of many carriers.”

“Given GAO’s findings, FMCSA should remove all carriers’ scores from public view,” said Dave Osiecki, ATA executive vice president and chief of national advocacy.

“Since scores are so often unreliable,” Osiecki said, “third parties are prone to making erroneous judgments based on inaccurate data, an inequity that can only be solved in the near term by removing the scores from public view.

“It would clearly be improper for FMCSA to proceed with its plan to base carrier safety fitness determinations on data from the system, until the problems identified by GAO have been rectified.” 

To produce an SMS score, FMCSA calculates violation rates for each carrier and then compares these rates to other carriers.

“Most carriers operate few vehicles and are inspected infrequently, providing insufficient information to produce reliable SMS scores,” the GAO said, adding that the FMCSA acknowledged that violation rates are less precise for carriers with little information, but its methods do not fully address this limitation.

“For example, FMCSA requires a minimum level of information for a carrier to receive an SMS score; however, this requirement is not strong enough to produce sufficiently reliable scores,” the report said. “As a result, GAO found that FMCSA identified many carriers as high risk that were not later involved in a crash, potentially causing FMCSA to miss opportunities to intervene with carriers that were involved in crashes.”

The GAO said FMCSA's methodology was limited because of insufficient information, which reduced the precision of SMS scores.

“GAO found that by scoring only carriers with more information, FMCSA could better identify high-risk carriers likely to be involved in crashes,” the GAO said.

The GAO acknowledged that this approach involved trade-offs.

“It would assign SMS scores to fewer carriers, but these scores would generally be more reliable and thus more useful in targeting FMCSA's scarce resources,” the GAO said.

The GAO noted that in addition to using SMS scores to prioritize carriers for intervention, the FMCSA reported these scores publicly and was considering using a carrier's performance information to determine its fitness to operate.

“Given the limitations with safety performance information, determining the appropriate amount of information needed to assess a carrier requires consideration of how reliable and precise the scores need to be for the purposes for which they are used,” the GAO said.

“Ultimately, the mission of FMCSA is to reduce crashes, injuries and fatalities. GAO continues to believe a data-driven, risk-based approach holds promise; however, revising the SMS methodology would help FMCSA better focus intervention resources where they can have the greatest impact on achieving this goal.”

The GAO noted that 64.2 percent of the 120,334 truck crashes in 2012 involved carriers with 26 or more power units, and that 61 percent of the 3,602 fatal crashes involved trucks from companies with 26 or more power units.

Ironically, the largest number of crashes and fatal accident in companies with 25 or fewer tractors was companies with one power unit (6,534 crashes and 202 fatal involvements).

The Trucker staff can be reached to comment on this article at editor@thetrucker.com.

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