By Jami Jones, managing editor
Building on the foundation of the motor carrier safety measurement system Compliance, Safety, Accountability, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration recently released its nine-year plan to move forward with a similar system for drivers.
Called the “Driver Safety Fitness Determination,” the system would assess severity weights to violations just like the CSA program for motor carriers. Ultimately, those scores will be processed through “methodology,” and a “safety fitness determination” will be arrived at. That would amount to labels like fit and unfit.
Currently, drivers are ranked in BASICs – the individual categories grouping similar regulations together – just like motor carriers. However, the Driver Safety Measurement System component of CSA and the resulting compliance rankings are available only to law enforcement and the FMCSA.
Those compliance rankings are used by law enforcement during compliance reviews on motor carriers and can result in civil sanctions against the individual drivers.
This new Driver Safety Fitness Determination mirrors a plan to assign motor carriers safety fitness determinations through CSA. That has failed to launch.
Cart before the horse
The FMCSA is moving forward with this plan because the Government Accountability Office recommended the agency “develop a plan for implementing driver fitness ratings.”
That is all it calls for – a plan. And given the agency still faces an industry-wide criticism of CSA and cannot (or has not been able to) proceed with motor carrier safety fitness determinations based on CSA data, it appears the agency is building this program on shaky ground at best.
The plan from the start with CSA, back in 2005 when the agency called it CSA 2010, was to tie the carrier safety fitness determination to the scoring system in the program. The plan was to have automatically assigned safety fitness determinations each time the compliance rankings were updated on a monthly basis.
Currently, motor carriers are only given safety fitness determinations of “satisfactory,” “conditional” or “unsatisfactory” following a compliance review.
The motor carrier portion of the industry almost immediately pitched a fit over the automatic assignment of these crucial labels. Even now a conditional rating is enough to spell certain death for a motor carrier as shippers and brokers shy away from any motor carrier labeled with that scarlet letter.
Large motor carriers sink enormous amounts of money into battling the agency over conditional and unsatisfactory ratings. The lengthy, and costly, process is something only the largest motor carriers have the capital to pursue.
That resistance to the automatic monthly assessments of fitness determinations has to, in no small part, be playing a huge role in delaying the rulemaking that would implement the automatic assignment process.
The start of the approval process with the Department of Transportation was initially planned for 2007. However, the notice of proposed rulemaking that would start the ball rolling still hasn’t happened.
The latest report from the agency shows that finally in September 2009, the NPRM was submitted to the DOT for review. It was withdrawn in March of 2010. The current plan is to send an NPRM to the DOT for hopeful approval in September of this year.
The abstract on the NPRM does not clearly state that the scores would be automatic, but it does point out that CSA compliance rankings could be the deciding factor, along with compliance reviews or roadside and inspection data.
Here we are six years after the agency initially planned to tie safety fitness determinations to CSA elements, and it is not clear if that is even going to be a reality.
Now the agency wants to build on a nonexistent platform and apply it to drivers.
Flawed from the start
Following in the footsteps of CSA, the agency plans to have the majority of the development of the system done before any public input is sought.
In fact, the agency plans to have five years of developing the program before the first opportunity for public input – in year six.
By that time, the agency will have established severity weights, developed the methodology, and tested the program with an “operational test model” the way they did with CSA.
The program stacks up to be a done deal before public input is sought.
CSA has been widely criticized for the inclusion of erroneous data and violations on regulations where the corresponding citation was either dismissed or the driver was found not guilty. Those inclusions, critics say, skew the compliance rankings and inaccurately identify countless motor carriers as unsafe.
The data in question is also used by the Pre-Employment Screening Program. The Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association has two lawsuits pending against FMCSA regarding that data. The cases involve a half-dozen drivers who either had citations dismissed or were found not guilty on various accusations, only to have FMCSA’s agents deny requests to remove the violation data from the drivers’ profiles.
This is not a new issue for the agency. This very point of including violations in the database when corresponding citations were adjudicated was brought up at one of the very first listening sessions on CSA by motor carriers, attorneys and OOIDA representatives. Yet nearly seven years later, the agency persists.
In addition to the “bad data,” CSA is also heavily criticized by OOIDA for lumping compliance-related violations in with safety violations. The Association has repeatedly pointed out a clear disconnect between a logbook form and manner violation and safe driving. The Association has recommended the agency separate the two types of regulations – compliance and safety-related – and display only the safety-related rankings publicly.
Stop, look, listen
From OOIDA’s perspective, moving forward without correcting the issues with CSA and without public input from the start will just set up the agency for failure.
“Data-driven safety determinations. That’s only meaningful if the data has some sort of direct correlation to crashes,” OOIDA Executive Vice President Todd Spencer said. “Cooking up another computer program that uses bad data is just throwing good money after bad. It’s little more than garbage in and garbage out. That’s much of the problem with the approach to CSA right now.”
Spencer said that when it comes to the correlation between violations and safety, there’s no such thing as getting too much input from people on the road dealing with these issues daily.
He pointed out that many safety directors, much like many regulators, have a perspective on safety. “But that perspective is not based on actually doing it or having done it.”
Spencer pointed to OOIDA’s new safety agenda, “Truckers for Safety.” Visit truckersforsafety.com for details.
“If you want meaningful advancements on the highways, the first and only place to start is with driver training,” Spencer said. “Properly educated and trained drivers will be the cornerstone for making the roads safer.” LL