Rep. Steve Chabot boiled concerns about the complex Compliance, Safety, Accountability program down to a simple question: “If I’m at a traffic light and someone slams into the back of me, am I held responsible — yes or no?”
The answer, the Ohio Republican found, is “yes.” A trucking company would be considered responsible for such an accident under the CSA’s current safety measurement system, even if investigators found the trucker wasn’t at fault.
That led Chabot and other members of the House Small Business Committee to question where, in fact, accountability lies in the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s controversial CSA initiative, the cornerstone of federal efforts to improve motor carrier safety and reduce truck-related crashes and fatalities.
“How can you hold somebody accountable for something that is not their fault? It is patently unfair,” said Rep. Jeff Landry, R-La., a vocal critic of the FMCSA who repeatedly challenged Deputy Administrator Bill Bronrott at a July 11 hearing.
The hearing raised the drumbeat against the CSA program and its safety measurement system, or how it’s being rolled out, another notch. The drumming got even louder last week as the Alliance for Safe, Efficient and Competitive Truck Transportation — a group that includes small trucking operators, brokers and shippers — filed a lawsuit against the FMCSA in the U.S. Court of Appeals.
The lawsuit challenges guidance the FMCSA issued to shippers, brokers and truckers on May 16 about how to use the Behavior Analysis and Safety Improvement Categories scores — known as BASICs — published for each carrier on the CSA Web site.
The safety measurement system has emerged as the key issue for those affected by the CSA — from how data in the system is used to calculate BASICs to whether those scores should be public.
“ASECTT members believe SMS methodology is a work in progress, unapproved for the agency’s own use in making safety fitness determinations,” Tom Sanderson, president of ASECTT and CEO of logistics company Transplace, said in a statement.
At the hearing, Bronrott defended the CSA, stressing the FMCSA is still working on the SMS and a new safety fitness determination system to replace the audit-based satisfactory, conditional and unsatisfactory ratings issued under the SafeStat system. A long-awaited rule-making is slated for early next year, he said.
“We know that CSA is working,” Bronrott said at the start of the hearing. “Last year, under CSA, truck and bus violations decreased by 8 percent and driver violations decreased by 12 percent. This is the largest drop in commercial vehicle and driver safety violation rates in a decade. CSA is allowing the agency to reap these safety benefits with less interruption to a carrier’s business operations.”
Republicans on the committee attacked the FMCSA, however, not just for the way it’s rolling out the CSA but also because of plans to require truckers to replace paper logbooks with electronic onboard recorders. Democrats, led by ranking member Rep. Nydia M. Velazquez of New York, raised the issue of driver pay and how it might be linked to safety. But crash weighting under the SMS was the big issue.
“We’re going to have to study this,” Bronrott told the committee. “We’re going to take this next year to thoroughly turn this inside out and report back to you.” Some members of the committee, however, weren’t thrilled with having to wait until July 2013, and neither were truckers and brokers who testified at the hearing.
In its current form, the program “is oppressive and punitive,” said Daniel Miranda, an owner-operator who runs Hit ’Em Hard Transportation in Elverta, Calif.
“CSA, though well-intentioned, is filled with flaws,” said Miranda, who testified for the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association. “Just a few minor violations can send your score skyrocketing,” an effect he experienced.
With the CSA, “the agency has created a heavy burden for American business,” said Jeff Tucker, CEO of freight brokerage Tucker Worldwide in Cherry Hill, N.J. “FMCSA hasn’t told us what BASIC score is unsafe, or who not to use. But they have given accident lawyers jet fuel for their negligent hiring lawsuits.”
Because CSA grades carriers on a curve, Tucker said it’s impossible for brokers or shippers to determine on their own which carriers are unsafe using BASIC scores. “There will always be a number of carriers with at least one alert,” he said.
And the vast majority of active carriers — those with operating authority, a motor carrier number and active insurance coverage — don’t have a BASIC score or safety fitness rating, according to Tucker Worldwide affiliate QualifiedCarriers.com.
“We ask FMCSA to define who the high-risk carriers are, name them in a file and send it to the public,” Tucker said, a step that could protect brokers and shippers from vicarious liability claims. “We will stop using those carriers overnight.”
The campaign against the CSA is likely to simmer in Congress this year. The courts — and this November’s elections — may play a decisive role in its future.