Congress should scrap flawed federal truck safety rules

As Congress considers transportation legislation, it should use this opportunity to rein in a flawed regulatory scheme within the Department of Transportation.

It’s been said that Joe isn’t a plumber, he’s a trucker.  About eight million Americans make their living driving heavy trucks or tractor-trailers, compared with less than half a million plumbers.  In this economy, stuff still needs hauling while not much construction is going on.

Both the U.S. Senate and U.S. House are moving fast on their respective highway bills.  This legislation will reauthorize federal surface transportation and infrastructure programs for the next several years.  This presents a golden opportunity to preserve and protect and defend trucking jobs presently at risk from a dangerous program called Compliance Safety Accountability.

The CSA program was hurried out in December 2010.  CSA rates trucking companies in seven categories, called BASICs.  Each category, such as “driver fitness” and “vehicle maintenance,” compares carriers against each other.  The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration sets percentage levels in each BASIC so that if a carrier crosses that “limbo bar,” the agency takes enforcement action.

CSA scores in five BASICs are publicized on a website.  The agency browbeats shippers and brokers, pushing them to rely on CSA for choosing a carrier.  That’s problematic in and of itself, because using CSA scores in carrier selection could subject shippers and brokers to liability in a lawsuit.

Everybody in transportation strongly supports safety.  That’s not the issue.  The issues are how regulators measure carrier safety and go about trying to improve safety.  CSA fails on both counts.

The CSA program claims to rate motor carriers’ safety record.  It actually doesn’t.  CSA suffers from major flaws in methodology and huge data gaps.

First, little wonder CSA is unreliable and invalid, because FMCSA never put the proposed program through the rulemaking required by law.  The Administrative Procedure Act requires extending due process before this kind of new regulatory scheme can be used.  That never happened.

The Data Quality Act requires the opportunity for peer review.  That never happened.  The Regulatory Flexibility Act requires agencies to take special steps to avoid harming small businesses in an affected industry sector.  That never happened.

Second, CSA relies on incomplete and misleading data.  BASIC scores come from data from roadside truck inspections.  CSA has only enough data to rate 92,000 carriers out of some 770,000 motor carriers in even one BASIC.

Third, CSA’s spotty data produce ratings that don’t indicate a carrier’s true safety risk.  For example, the “driver fitness” BASIC, which rates only 3.5 percent of the industry, reflects mostly drivers who don’t have their medical cards with them, not drivers with an actual disqualifying medical condition. 

Also, more than half the points in the “vehicle maintenance” category are associated with modest matters like tire tread depth, trailer lights and brake adjustments.  CSA doesn’t take into account who was at fault in an accident, whether a speeding ticket was reversed upon appeal or other important details.

Truckers receive nearly one-third of all speed warnings and tickets in four states: Illinois, Indiana, Michigan and Ohio.  Indiana alone issues more than half of speed warnings for 1-5 miles per hour over the limit that show up in CSA ratings.  This geographical bias in CSA reflects the “probable cause” standard of those four states.  Police there issue a warning or a ticket in order to inspect a vehicle.

Many of the purported “safety risk” indicators behind carriers’ CSA ratings in the “fatigued driver” BASIC include technical violations, hours-of-service violations and paperwork errors.  A driver hasn’t updated his log according to the regulatory schedule.  He made a math error in his log entry.  Not exactly things that affect the driver’s or his carrier’s actual safety risk.

The fact that 51,000 of the 92,000 CSA-rated carriers, or about 55 percent, have at least one BASIC rating over the limbo bar proves CSA employs a flawed methodology.

Independent analysis by Wells Fargo determined that CSA lacks validity as an indicator of carrier safety.  “When we dissected the underlying data in relation to the composite scores, we were somewhat surprised to see that there was little correlation between the scores and the actual number of accidents and injuries/fatalities,” Wells Fargo reported.  “Specifically, we observed little correlation between poor scores in the Unsafe Drivers and Fatigued Drivers categories and the actual number of accidents or injuries/fatalities.”
The best way to measure trucking safety is to look at how many people die in accidents with trucks and how frequently truck-related accidents occur.  On those counts, the objective truth favors trucking.

Both the number of accidents involving large trucks and the number of large trucks involved in fatal crashes per 100 million miles traveled have fallen to 20-year record lows.  About 3,200 large trucks had fatal crashes in 2009.  Large trucks had only 7 percent of all fatal crashes and 2 percent of injury crashes.  Car drivers caused the vast majority of accidents with big trucks.

Bottom line, CSA extends regulatory reach to disrupt perfectly safe motor carriers’ business and livelihood—without a sound basis in fact.  CSA should be scrapped.