January 16, 2016

FMCSA to propose major change in formula for rating motor carrier fitness

Agency to replace three-tier criteria with one determination; industry groups to oppose measure.

By DC Velocity Staff

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) said Friday it plans to change its formula for assessing the safety of motor carriers by replacing its three-tier rating with a single fitness determination. The action will result in an exponential increase in the number of carriers FMCSA can evaluate per year, it said.

FMCSA, a subagency of the Department of Transportation, said it will integrate on-road inspection data with the results of its carrier investigations to more effectively target its limited resources at carriers that demonstrate higher crash risks. Carriers found to be unfit to operate will be given that classification, at which time they will be ordered out of service and not reinstated until they've shown improvement, FMCSA said.

The agency plans to publish a notice of proposed rulemaking ont Thursday. Parties will have 60 days from the publication date to file comments, and will have an additional 30 days for responses.

The current standard, in effect since 1982, assigns three types of safety determinations: Satisfactory, conditional, and unsatisfactory. Land Air Express of New England Ltd., a large less-than-truckload carrier based in Williston, Vt. that FMCSA put out of service Dec. 29, was reinstated Jan. 8 with a conditional rating. FMCSA said in removing the out-of-service order that it will closely monitor the carrier's fitness for the next two years.

FMCSA said a streamlined approach to safety grading will ramp up its productivity, allowing it to determine the fitness of about 75,000 carriers a month. Today, FMCSA investigates only 15,000 carriers a year, with less than half of those even receiving a safety rating, it said. There are an estimated 530,000 registered motor carriers in the U.S., according to FMCSA data.

The agency's proposal is its latest effort to remove as many unfit truckers from the road as possible with a relatively modest number of inspectors. In 2010, FMCSA rolled out "Compliance, Safety, and Accountability" program (CSA), which grades carriers based on roadside performance data collected in seven categories and then assigns performance scores under what is known as a "Safety Measurement System," or SMS. Industry has argued for the past six years that the scores are based on flawed methodology that tars safe carriers with the same broad brush as unsafe ones.

The five-year federal transport-spending bill signed into law last month directed FMCSA to commission a three-year study by the Transportation Research Board (TRB) of the CSA program. The bill also required FMCSA to remove SMS scores and analysis from public view, but allowed the raw data used to compile the scores to remain.

FMCSA said Friday that, under its proposal, a carrier's fitness would be based on its performance under five of the seven categories, along with the results of carrier investigations and crash reports. The proposed rule would require written proof of a "significant pattern of noncompliance" for a carrier to fail in one of the categories. For example, the agency would require a minimum of 11 inspections with violations in a single "Behavior Analysis and Safety Improvement Category" (BASIC) within a 24-month period before a motor carrier could be eligible to be identified as "unfit." If a carrier's performance meets or exceeds the failure standards in the rule, it would then fail that BASIC, FMCSA said.

In a nod to industry claims that carriers are graded on a curve that includes others, FMCSA said a carrier's status would not be affected by the performance of other truckers.

The Alliance for Safe, Efficient, and Competitive Truck Transportation (ASECTT), a group of shippers, carriers, and freight brokers that has fought the FMCSA's safety-rating process for years, said in a statement Friday that the agency proposed a "quickie rule" in an attempt to get around Congressional directives. FMCSA is also thwarting Congressional intent by improperly using data generated in the SMS, the group alleged. The group said it is likely on firm legal grounds to challenge the FMCSA measure, but said it would withhold more concrete judgment until after a full review.

ASECTT said FMCSA is allowing parties only two months to respond to a 267-page proposal that has been in the works since the agency first proposed revamping the fitness determination process in 2007.

The group added that FMCSA is putting the "cart before the horse" by issuing its proposal more than two years before the TRB's deadline for completing its analysis of the CSA methodology. Forcing all parties to wait for TRB's report will be a waste of public and private resources if the board does the expected and fails to validate the CSA methodology, ASECTT said.

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