Washington Insider
Predicting the future. Or not.

By Laura C. O'Neill, OOIDA Director of Government Affairs

The year is 2054 and federal officer John Anderton is in hot pursuit of a perpetrator on the verge of committing a homicide. How does Officer Anderton know the perp is about to commit a crime at some point in the near future? Was there a call to 911? Was there a reliable tip from an informant?

No, Officer Anderton is aware of a future crime in this science fiction movie called “Minority Report,” because Anderton (played by Tom Cruise) works for a futuristic Department of Justice that has the capability through the use of the premonitions of three pre-cognitive human beings (“Pre-Cogs”) to arrest the “criminals” before the crimes even happen.

Setting aside discussions on certain obvious constitutional violations and sparing the reader the even more obvious Big Brother references, I am still compelled to draw the parallel between this Hollywood thriller and our own government. The DOT’s motor carrier safety rating program known as CSA – a program heavy on algorithms – attempts to identify unsafe operators through the use of certain indicators to predict who is more likely to get into an accident.

Congress gave DOT the authority many moons ago to implement a safety rating system that would compile violations. Therefore the program, at least according to DOT, does not need to undergo a rulemaking process.

The result of bypassing rulemaking is a program, although well-intended, that is overly complicated and burdensome on small businesses with no attribution of crash fault even taken into consideration. Under the new system, if a trucker is involved in an accident, regardless of who actually caused it, the safety rating is affected because the DOT believes that crash “involvement” – not fault – is a reliable indicator to predict future crashes.

That’s right, with algorithms acting as the agency’s Pre-Cogs, the federal government has the ability to predict future highway accidents and ultimately prevent them before they occur … or at least they seem to think so.

But where there is an obvious design flaw (outside of accident involvement, which can in no way predict future accidents) is the fact that FMCSA has designed a system which at its core requires businesses to compete against one another for safety ratings. The system does not allow for perfection – which is counterintuitive to what should be the goal.

To further understand this, one must look at how ratings are assigned. Operators under the program are not simply assigned a grade or a rank by an objective scale, but rather are lumped into percentile rankings like a bell curve grading system. Therefore, motor carriers are graded not by their performance but in relationship to other motor carriers. In other words, we are striving not for everyone to achieve an A grade in the class, but for you to simply be better than the other guy.

In addition, FMCSA has designed a system guaranteeing that in order for one to succeed, others must fail. As in a bell curve, there will always be a top and a bottom. The agency, in its quest to cleverly predict the future, has simply put in place a system that is excessively complicated and unfortunately misses the mark.

In the movie, the government believed the system was infallible – until it was proven fallible after it was manipulated.

In the real world, FMCSA’s system will be manipulated by unscrupulous entities who will have the objective not to be the safest carrier, but to simply be better than the other guy because that is where the bar has been set. Those carriers don’t necessarily care and are looking to cut corners. In other words, they are yelling “Show me the money” (to keep it in terms of Tom Cruise movies) because the government wasn’t yelling “show me the safety” when it designed this program. LL