The system used by the federal government to identify and grade high-risk commercial motor carriers is "conceptually sound" but has flaws in its implementation, the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) said today in releasing a long-awaited study of the controversial system.
NAS urged the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA), which designed and implemented the existing "Safety Measurement System" (SMS), to spend the next two years developing a more "statistically principled" approach to evaluate carrier safety. Specifically, the agency should rely on a sophisticated empirical model called "item response theory" that has been used to, among other things, influence policy decisions in other areas, such as hospital rankings. Supporters of this measure, which include the American Trucking Associations (ATA) and the Transportation Intermediaries Association (TIA), which represents property brokers, said the model replaces an approach based on ad-hoc subject-matter expertise with one that focuses on hard data.
If the model performs well in spotting motor carriers whose safety performance is suspect enough to require an FMCSA intervention, the agency should use it to replace SMS, according to the report, which was mandated by Congress in 2015 under a five-year transport-spending law and was nearly two years in the making. Under the original system developed in 2010, each carrier is measured under seven performance categories and assigned one of three safety ratings—satisfactory, conditional, and unsatisfactory—through the SMS. In January 2016, FMCSA proposed to change the three-tier model and create just an "unfit" rating. The rating is arrived at by analyzing five of seven performance criteria. FMCSA would then either conduct a full investigation of selected carriers or use a combination of on-road safety data and investigative information to come up with a fitness determination.
FMCSA said at the time that the proposal would allow it to maximize finite investigation and enforcement resources. However, critics attacked it as being based on the same flawed methodology that's been in place for years. The agency also drew fire for issuing a revamped proposal before the NAS study was completed. The proposal was withdrawn soon after President Trump took office. Most of the trucking industry wants the FMCSA to take responsibility for determining a motor carrier's safety with a simple "fit" or "unfit" rating.
Trucking companies claim the agency has instead foisted its obligation onto brokers and carriers, leaving them open to massive liability exposure should a carrier they select be involved in an accident.
As part of a recommended emphasis on analytics, NAS said that FMCSA should collaborate with states and other agencies to improve the collection of data on vehicle miles traveled and on crashes, data which are often missing or of unsatisfactory quality. For example, by including data on vehicle miles travelled by state and month, the SMS can account for varied weather conditions in different regions and their impact on driver and carrier performance.
FMCSA should also research ways to collect data on what NAS called "carrier characteristics," the report said. This includes driver turnover rates, type of cargo hauled, and the method and level of driver compensation. Well-compensated drivers and drivers who are not paid based on miles travelled, have fewer crashes, the report said. The additional data collection would require greater collaboration between FMCSA and the states to standardize the effort and to protect carrier-specific information, the report said.
FMCSA has 120 days to develop new methodology that incorporates the NAS findings.
NAS said it was unable to determine whether SMS rankings should be made public because it would require a formal evaluation to understand the consequences of such a step. Congress in 2015 ordered FMCSA to withdraw rankings from public view. However, lawmakers allowed the agency to keep the raw data used to compile the scores on its site. ATA said the data should remain private. TIA echoed that view, saying the information yielded by the new approach could lead to disastrous liability consequences for 3PLs, brokers, and shippers responsible for selecting motor carriers.
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story misstated the amount of time FMCSA has to develop a new safety-determination methodology. DC Velocity regrets the error.