June 11, 2012 3:45 AM, EDT

ATA Asks FMCSA to Release Agency’s Crash-Fault Study

By Timothy Cama, Staff Reporter

This story appears in the June 11 print edition of Transport Topics.

American Trucking Associations last week called on the industry’s chief federal regulator to release the results of a study that the group said could buttress the case for using police reports to determine who is at fault in truck-related crashes.

ATA said the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, which commissioned the study, had itself said two years ago that the preliminary results supported using police reports, and that the agency promised to release those results back then.

The study could be a crucial element in the wrangling over crash accountability that has broken out between trucking and FMCSA.

“Two years ago, the agency, when the study was in its early phases, acknowledged that the preliminary results were ‘promising,’ ” Rob Abbott, ATA’s vice president of safety policy, told Transport Topics last week. “And subsequent conversations with agency officials confirmed that the results bore that out.”

“To confirm that — and to be consistent with their intention of being very open with this data — we would like them to make it public, as they committed to doing,” Abbott said.

ATA’s request, outlined in a June 4 statement, was the latest move in the group’s ongoing fight to have FMCSA consider crash accountability when rating carriers under the agency’s new Compliance, Safety, Accountability program. The agency previously said it was working toward such a system, but in March, after comments by interest groups, Administrator Anne Ferro said FMCSA would delay its release (3-19, p. 1).

The day after ATA made its request, Ferro told TT she was “looking forward to sharing the analysis of our crash-weighting study,” and declined to comment further. Additional questions submitted to a spokeswoman were not answered.

In an April 2010 letter provided by ATA, Ferro said her agency was evaluating the feasibility of a crash-accountability system in which “staff would assess state-reported crashes for accountability before they are considered” in CSA’s methodology.

Ferro wrote in that letter that such a process, which ATA said it favored, showed “promising” results, which “indicate that the use of police accident reports is a viable option for determining large truck and bus crash accountability.”

Five months later, Ferro told ATA in a letter that the results of the study — which was being done by FMCSA and other federal agencies — were “currently under review,” and would be released after the review.

ATA President Bill Graves framed the issue as one of transparency.

“To live up to its goal to be open and transparent, FMCSA should release the results of its study, identify the specific concerns that caused it to place the planned solution on hold, and commit to a timeline for addressing this issue,” Graves said in ATA’s statement.

FMCSA uses crash data, among other enforcement information, to determine which carriers to investigate. It also posts crash information — without accountability determinations — on a public website and plans to use its CSA data eventually to assign safety scores to carriers (5-14, p. 1).

Fleets have complained they are being penalized because FMCSA’s current regime doesn’t take into account what causes crashes. So, the fleets say, their safety records suffer for accidents where their drivers are clearly not at fault, such as when they are legally parked and an auto driver crashes into them.

Henry Jasny, general counsel for Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, who pushed Ferro to delay the accountability work, said he welcomed the study’s results, but cautioned that it might not have looked into using statements from victims and others involved in crashes.

“I know firsthand from talking to people who said the police reports didn’t reflect what happened to them,” Jasny told TT.

After learning about the crash accountability efforts in January, Jasny faulted FMCSA for developing a program that focused only on police reports and statements from carriers and drivers. That prompted Ferro to delay the program, he said.

“I’m all for releasing the completed study,” Jasny said.

Jasny said he was not surprised at Ferro’s 2010 assessment that police reports were usable. “I think that they thought that up until when we confronted the issue when we heard about it back in January,” he said.

Abbott speculated that FMCSA had planned to release the study, along with its plans for the crash accountability program, when it rolled out a package of changes to the CSA methodology this spring.

“And when they didn’t, they didn’t publish the study,” he said.

ATA has historically supported the goals of CSA, which aimed to focus FMCSA’s enforcement efforts based on violations that are placed into a series of categories.

However, the group has been vocal about its objections in recent months, calling the agency “unresponsive” to ATA’s concerns, including those over crash accountability (5-28, p. 1).

Staff Reporter Eric Miller contributed to this report.