Move over, CSA. Here comes JUST.

By John Bendel, editor-at-large

Let's say you're stopped in traffic and a drunk runs into your truck. The bozo gets bruised and spends a couple of hours in the emergency room. You aren't cited, because you didn't do anything wrong. Hell, you didn't do anything at all.

But there is a police report, and you're part of it. That report works its way through legal jurisdictions all the way to D.C., where it folds into the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration's Compliance, Safety, Accountability program - the dreaded CSA.

The agency doesn't know who was at fault and they don't care. You were in it, so it counts against you and the carrier you drive for. You can plead all you want, show a dash-cam video, and even submit tracking documentation that proves you were sitting still. None of it matters. You've been downgraded.

Sure, if you've received a summons as a result of the wreck and a judge eventually finds you innocent, the FMCSA says it will expunge the incident from your rating. But without a summons or finding of innocence, you're stuck.

Now along comes a private company that says they will investigate the crash. If it is found non-preventable, that you were not at fault, they will erase that incident from your score.

Would you pay the $200 they charge for the service?

Oh, there's one important thing you should know: The score they're talking about is their own proprietary safety rating called JUST. It's based on the same stats that CSA uses. Indeed, it feels very much like CSA.

But make no mistake: It isn't CSA.

Private enterprise safety ratings

The company is Vigillo of Portland, Ore., and they're not trying to fool anyone. They can't change your CSA score, and they're upfront about it. This is no scam. They have a far grander - perhaps even too grand - vision.

In fact, Vigillo has gone into competition with the FMCSA and its CSA system. Their JUST score, they say, is a viable alternative to CSA.

Vigillo describes itself as a data mining company. A good chunk of the data they mine comes from the FMCSA, the same statistics that power CSA. Vigillo massages that data and sells the results, including safety ratings for drivers. The FMCSA cannot legally make those driver CSA scores public yet, but Vigillo is under no such constraints. And thanks to the FAST Act, the FMCSA can't even disclose motor carrier CSA scores for the time being. Vigillo's customers have access to what Vigillo claims are precisely the scores CSA would provide if they were allowed.

FMCSA puts distance between Vigillo and anyone else using their stats for commercial purposes. "FMCSA has not and will not validate any vendors' scorecards or data," the agency notes on its website.

It doesn't seem to matter. By all accounts Vigillo has found tremendous success in CSA statistics. Now they will provide JUST ratings to their current customers, but the revenue for JUST will come from the carriers who want those non-preventable crashes removed from their scores. The process is open only to registered carriers and independents with a DOT number. For hire and leased drivers the fleet has to apply.

"The carrier pays us $200 for each crash review, so there's the business model," said Vigillo CEO Steve Bryan. "There are 135,000 DOT-recordable crashes every year. The industry will tell you that 60 percent to 70 percent of them are non-preventable. So if you do the math, this becomes a pretty compelling business if we can get large numbers of people doing this."

But the JUST scores will have value only if they are accepted by shippers, brokers and insurers. So Vigillo has set up a collision review system it hopes will be acknowledged by the industry as valid.

Bryan says that a network of current and retired officers from law and commercial motor vehicle enforcement will review each wreck and decide whether it was preventable or not. Those officers will look at more evidence than the FMCSA considers for CSA. The FMCSA looks only at the police incident report, Bryan explains, which they say does not afford enough information to decide on fault.

"We agree with them, but why limit yourself? There's a lot of evidence that can be collected, primarily in-cab video," he said.

A decision in 48 hours

For a JUST review, carriers submit videos, the police report, and a statement on why they believe a crash was non-preventable.

"We deploy that to two reviewers. They consider the evidence and make a determination: This was preventable or it was non-preventable. And the bar is high. Our instructions are that an accident can only be deemed non-preventable if there is clear, clear evidence," Bryan said.

To stress validity, Bryan noted, any bias in the system "will skew toward keeping the crashes on the carrier's record."

If both reviewers agree, their mutual verdict applies. If not, the evidence is sent to a third reviewer whose vote decides the matter.

Bryan explained that decisions can be rendered in a reasonable amount of time because all the reviewers are part of a cellphone network.

"We notify them that crash documentation has been uploaded for review. The first two guys that click on the button are directed to log into a web platform where this documentation lives, where they can review it," Bryan explained. "Now they can sit in front of their laptop, their desktop computer, or maybe an iPad to see the video and read the documents."

Reviewers have 48 hours to make a decision.

Bryan said Vigillo will not release JUST scores to the public. Instead, customers will have a JUST scorecard in their digital account.

"They can use that with their customers, the people hiring them to carry freight, the freight brokers, and the insurance companies. If they choose to share it with the public, they certainly can do that," Bryan said.

The inability of FMCSA to determine preventability in CSA is the main focus of JUST, but not the only issue. There are also problems in CSA math and methodology, "things that just don't make sense," he noted.

"So we're going to fix some of those math problems under the hood. We know how to deal with issues in the safety event groups and with state disparities. We're just going to fix those."

But Bryan sees the first challenge to JUST as acceptance in the transportation community.

"There are a couple of steps in the dance," he explained. "The first is to develop the platform and get buy-in from our customers and the industry. Step two is to have conversations with the customer, with the brokers, and with the shippers about why the JUST numbers are better, why it's a sharper lens on the true safety performance of a carrier."

How's that acceptance coming along?

JUST was introduced at the ATA convention in October. As of press time just over a month later, the word had not yet gotten out.

Robert Voltmann is executive director of the Transportation Intermediaries Association, the national group of freight brokers. "Thanks for the inquiry," he responded in an email, "but I don't know enough about the program to make a comment."

Similarly, an ATA spokesman said that while they endorse some Vigillo products, the ATA does not yet have an opinion on JUST.

Meanwhile, OOIDA's Todd Spencer commented on potential legal proceedings. "I think that should lawsuits over crashes take place, they (Vigillo) would be named in the suit."

A decisive test in law

Indeed the ultimate acceptance of JUST could involve a court challenge. It might come about like this: A broker hires a carrier based on a JUST score more favorable for the carrier than the existing CSA score. The carrier is involved in a fatal accident with that shipment. Could a plaintiff's attorney charge the broker with negligence based on its use of JUST instead of CSA? Could they name Vigillo in a lawsuit?

"If I were the plaintiff's attorney, I would challenge the Vigillo score. Who is Vigillo? What is a for-profit company doing in the business of safety ratings? How do they arrive at these ratings?" said attorney Kieran Pillion with the Princeton, N.J., firm of Smith Stratton.

"So much better for the plaintiff if Vigillo had ever adjusted that carrier's score. Then we would have a for-profit company that had changed a safety score for a carrier that had paid for the review - in other words, a customer. That could be very influential, especially in a jury trial," Pillion said.

For his part, Steve Bryan says Vigillo is prepared to defend JUST in court.

"A negligent hire suit can be brought for any reason or no reason at all. Our position, if included in a lawsuit, will be an open and transparent explanation of the process behind crash reviews and the data behind our fixes to CSA. We are very confident that JUST, based in sound data science, can withstand the plaintiffs. But of course, time will tell, and lawsuits will probably fly." LL