Commentary: CSA Clouds Motor Carrier Safety

Q: I think you overreacted to the question from a motor carrier who was upset because his trucks were being stopped by police in Michigan and Ohio for minor speeding violations and given warnings (not citations) in the June 25 issue.

You missed the point that these are “probable cause” states. That is, there and in a few other states, police can’t stop trucks for routine inspections and checks without probable cause. So a cop will eyeball a truck, decide it’s speeding, pull it over and then perform a full check. The speeding is reduced to a warning because the cop can’t prove it, but any other violations are written up.

In safety evaluations, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration gives warnings the same weight as actual citations. But because of the probable cause situation, there are disproportionately many warnings handed out in these few states. So the large number of warnings downgrades a carrier’s safety rating, which can put it at a competitive disadvantage among shippers who look hard at this. That was, I think, your correspondent’s point. Care to revisit the issue?

A: I admit I took the original question too lightly. I had in mind offering kind of a lighthearted apology, too, until several people — notably Henry E. Seaton, a Vienna, Va., attorney, and Jeff Tucker, CEO of Tucker Co. Worldwide — persuaded me that, in some people’s eyes at least, this is quite a serious matter.

According to what I’m learning, the issue of counting traffic warnings against a carrier’s safety standing is only the tip of the iceberg. The real problem, I’m told, is that the FMCSA’s Compliance, Safety, Accountability program, and especially its Safety Measurement System (designed to replace the old SAFESTAT), is fatally flawed in many regards.

It’s evidently more than just the usual Washington Beltway grousing. Out there in the real world of commerce, carrier safety matters. A few recent court decisions have held shippers and third parties vicariously liable for the consequences of highway accidents on the ground that they (the shippers and 3PLs), by giving unsafe carriers loads to haul, were responsible for the carriers being on the road. And personal injury lawyers nationwide are slavering over the rulings and lining up to file new lawsuits.

So, more and more, shippers and 3PLs are learning to really care about carrier safety. And the complaint is that the CSA-SMS system is woefully inadequate, and inaccurate, at evaluating individual carrier performance and is thereby causing many carriers irreparable marketplace harm.

Not only that, I’m further told, but the program is drifting far afield from the FMCSA’s core mission, which is to enhance highway safety for the protection of the public. Studies have reportedly shown little if any correlation between many of the FMCSA’s evaluation criteria and accidents. In essence, the agency is accused of climbing all over some carriers that are basically safe operators and ignoring others that aren’t.

Complaints I’m receiving are many and various: inadequate, unreliable and inconsistent state data (such as my original correspondent’s speeding warnings); senseless focus by the FMCSA on trivialities while more serious matters go unattended (ditto); a rating system that grades carriers “on a curve” (remember that silliness from your school days?) rather than using absolute measures. The list goes on far too long for inclusion here.

The thing is, a lot of what I’m hearing makes sense to me. I’m far from an expert in this discipline and I assert no entitlement to offer independent judgment, but I’m a fair hand at simple logic. And when my government downgrades carriers based on random traffic stops and other such pettiness while giving the same weight to far more serious violations, well, the logic escapes me.

Now, there are upwards of half a million commercial carriers out there, according to the FMCSA. To suggest the agency should measure each and every one against some general standard of safety is silly.

But that, supposedly, is what CSA-SMS is intended to do, and that’s how it’s touted to those who must make shipping decisions to use or not use this or that carrier. And it’s not, from all I’m told, making much of a job of it.

I don’t condemn the FMCSA; it’s a political agency, and as such must be responsive to political pressure to build a system for evaluating carrier safety. But good politics doesn’t necessarily make for good safety. I think there has to be a better way.

Consultant, author and educator Colin Barrett is president of Barrett Transportation Consultants. Send your questions to him at 5201 Whippoorwill Lane, Johns Island, S.C. 29455; phone, 843-559-1277; e-mail, Contact him to order the most recent 351-page compiled edition of past Q&A columns, published in 2010.

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