The premise was simple and sound: Stop using random audits to determine carrier safety.
Instead, collect consistent data from roadside inspections and accident reports; then use it and other relevant factors to calculate a safety “score” that could be used to predict the probability of accidents for each carrier. Divide safety data into seven distinct BASIC categories — unsafe driving, crash indicator, hours-of-service compliance, vehicle maintenance, controlled substances/alcohol, hazardous materials compliance, and driver fitness). Encourage carriers to adopt practices that improved their overall scores.
The resulting Compliance, Safety, Accountability (CSA) program, overseen by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, was supposed to result in genuine safety improvements for the trucking industry. In reality, say many in the trucking industry, the program is flawed, presenting an unfair picture of a carrier’s safety record that can cause unrealistic increases in insurance rates in addition to lost business opportunities from shippers, brokers, and others. An offshoot of the program, the Pre-Employment Screening (PSP) program, draws from the same data pool and is fraught with the same flaws as CSA.
“We used to call CSA 2010. It’s now 2023, and nobody really can figure out the best way to move forward with it,” said David Heller, senior vice president of safety and government affairs for the Truckload Carriers Association (TCA). “I still go back to the days of SafeStat. CSA was the ‘cure’ for all the shortcomings of SafeStat. It hasn’t happened.”
Problems with CSA started showing up soon after the program was implemented.
There were geographical biases; some jurisdictions performed many more inspections than others. Consistency of inspections was a problem because inspectors from different agencies focused on different items. Inconsistency of reporting occurred, with some jurisdictions delaying submission of inspections and some only submitting those with negative information, skewing CSA scores downward.
“The members of TCA and the industry have never had a problem with determining their carrier safety fitness; they just have to insist that it’s done correctly,” Heller explained. “Unfortunately, it’s morphed into this situation where really you’re just highlighting the bad portions of our industry and the violations, when both the good and the bad need to be captured.”
When the collection and analysis of data isn’t done correctly, the result can impact more than just the carrier’s relationship with FMCSA.
From the beginning, CSA scores were supposed to be a tool used by both FMCSA and carriers to improve safety records and reduce crashes. As the data was made public, however, some unplanned consequences occurred. Insurance companies began incorporating CSA data into the underwriting process, impacting rates and, in some cases, whether coverage was issued at all. CSA scores have had a direct impact on carrier revenues, too, Heller noted.
“Customers are looking at these carriers and their safety performance, and in some cases, that’s the determining factor of whether or not they do business with those carriers,” he said.
While each driver’s ability to get hired is impacted by PSP, many of them use CSA scores in deciding which carriers to apply to.
Since its inception, efforts have been made to minimize the negative impact of the CSA program. In response to complaints of inaccuracy, scores in some categories have been temporarily removed from public access at different times while solutions were in development.
One effort was in 2018, after a review of the program by the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine, a Washington, D.C. think tank. The result was an effort by FMCSA to move toward a system based on Item Response Theory (IRT).
“The deal was to incorporate Item Response Theory that would have created basically ‘CSA 2.0,’” Heller explained. “Nobody could figure out how to explain what it was. They haven’t announced that they’re abandoning IRT, but they certainly haven’t addressed or brought up IRT in a long time.”
Recently, the FMCSA announced its intention to roll out a new safety fitness determination program, but details aren’t available yet.
“As an industry, we just have to insist that it’s done correctly,” Heller said. “If you’re going to determine drivers’ safety fitness, make sure it’s done the right way, and make sure you do what you say you’re going to do. Make sure you’re tracking both the good and the bad and painting an accurate picture. If you’re not, it’s just not good for the industry as a whole.”
The FMCSA indicated it would publish an Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking for the new program by January 30, 2023. As of this writing, in February, it hasn’t happened.
Currently the best option for both carriers and drivers is the DataQs process that provides an avenue to appeal information in the record. A statement on the FMCSA DataQs website states: “DataQs is an FMCSA system that allows users to request and track a review of Federal and State data issued by FMCSA believed to be incomplete or inaccurate.” The program enables users “to improve the accuracy of FMCSA’s data-driven safety systems.” Carriers that don’t utilize the DataQs appeal process may have safety records that don’t accurately credit their safety efforts.
While it might be reasonable to ask why inaccurate or unsubstantiated information is included without verification in the first place, Heller believes the system is still the best weapon carriers have to protect their record.
“Is everybody taking full advantage of it? I don’t think so,” he said. “I think there are some carriers that have it down to a science.”
In 2019 the FMCSA proposed an updated Crash Preventability Determination Program (CPDP) that allows carriers to submit a request for review of an accident for preventability. Accidents determined to be “not preventable” by the FMCSA are excluded from the prioritization algorithm used to calculate CSA scores. Preventable crashes will continue to be listed on PSP reports but will be noted as non-preventable.
While FMCSA may continue to revise and refine the CSA program, Heller cautions that carriers shouldn’t wait for the next iteration.
“As long as this is the system we have, let’s work the best we can with it,” he said.
As for needed improvements, he said, “If it can be measured, it can be fixed. Figure out a way to fix it and that determination ultimately is going to make our industry safer.
“They certainly have it on their calendar,” he continued. “I don’t think it’s a removal of CSA, but it’s an attempt to try and make it better.”
The current CSA program, with all its shortcomings, is still a usable tool for measuring safety fitness and identifying areas that need attention. Perhaps the next revision will push the program closer to the effective safety management tool the agency envisioned prior to the 2010 implementation.
Cliff Abbott is an experienced commercial vehicle driver and owner-operator who still holds a CDL in his home state of Alabama. In nearly 40 years in trucking, he’s been an instructor and trainer and has managed safety and recruiting operations for several carriers. Having never lost his love of the road, Cliff has written a book and hundreds of songs and has been writing for The Trucker for more than a decade.