CSA Turns 10, but Is It Making Trucking Safer?

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According to Scopelitis Transportation Consulting's presentation of the latest comparable FMCSA data, the truck-involved fatal crash rate per 100 million miles traveled has grown from 1.14 in 2010 to 1.42 in 2017. (Getty Images)

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It’s been a decade since the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration kicked off its Compliance, Safety, Accountability program aimed at assessing the safety of the nation’s motor carriers. Yet there are still some concerns about its benefits.

While there can be little doubt that CSA has inspired the trucking industry to become more safety-minded, has it actually reduced truck-involved fatal crashes?

The numbers say no, but the story doesn’t end there.



“Despite the best of intentions, CSA has not moved the crash reduction needle in the right direction. Is it time for FMCSA to consider a new and different approach to CSA, and perhaps more generally?” Dave Osiecki, president of Washington-based Scopelitis Transportation Consulting, wrote last month in a transportation brief.

“Of course, CSA had other objectives like trying to maximize resources, touch more carriers and so forth,” Osiecki added. “But at the end of the day, the primary objective was to improve safety by reducing crashes. And when I looked at it, it’s pretty clear that CSA hasn’t met that objective.”

CSA, a data-driven safety compliance and enforcement program, consists of three core components: the Safety Measurement System, interventions and a Safety Fitness Determination rating system.

According to Scopelitis’ presentation of the latest comparable FMCSA data, the truck-involved fatal crash rate per 100 million miles traveled has grown from 1.14 in 2010 to 1.42 in 2017. Likewise, the rate of truck-involved injuries has climbed from 19.5 to 34.4 per 100 million miles traveled over the same period, according to Scopelitis.

I wish [FMCSA would] implement the darn thing.

Steve Bryan, executive VP and GM for SambaSafety Transportation, on whether FMCSA should apply Item Response Theory to CSA


While firm results haven’t been released for 2018 and 2019, there are indications that they aren’t looking any better — which was one of the reasons FMCSA Acting Administrator Jim Mullen said he has charged the agency’s leadership to turn around this year what he said is a four-year increase in truck-involved fatality numbers.

RELATED: FMCSA Seeks Comments for New Large-Truck Crash Causation Study

Steve Bryan, executive vice president and general manager for SambaSafety Transportation, a company that analyzes fleet safety data, said the answer to Osiecki’s question isn’t as simple as one might think. “Love CSA, hate CSA. Think it’s good, think it’s bad, accurate, inaccurate,” Bryan said. “But there is no question that it gave safety a seat at the table that it didn’t have before.”

Bryan added, “Has it led to reduced crashes? Absolutely not. Crashes are up, fatalities are up.”

However, Bryan also said that for truck drivers, the world has changed. “The environment that truckers operate in — the distractions from cellphones and the fatigue is extraordinarily worse than it was 10 or 12 years ago.”



Shaun Kildare, research director for Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, said Scopelitis’ figures are not necessarily an apples-to-apples comparison. For instance, he said in 2009, the trucking industry was at a low point in miles traveled due to the recession, and in 2016-2017, FMCSA changed its data collection method.

“What CSA can do is limited by the amount of enforcement and touches by the agency and the industry,” Kildare said. “There are about 560,000 carriers that FMCSA regulates. Of that total, in reality, they may only audit and touch as many as, let’s say, 50,000 carriers.”

Dan Horvath, vice president of safety policy for American Trucking Associations, said CSA has been the subject of critical studies, including a 2014 Government Accountability Office investigation that found significant shortcomings in the ability of CSA to accurately predict crash risk for motor carriers. In addition, the National Academy of Sciences conducted a congressionally mandated yearlong study that issued six major recommendations to improve the program, even though it found CSA methodology was sound.



“Truck crashes have gone up,” Horvath said. “But I don’t believe that an improved CSA program will be the single solution to reducing truck crashes. I certainly believe that an improved program can be part of the broader picture to reduce crash risk.”

FMCSA is in fact working on improvements to CSA, evaluating a methodology known as Item Response Theory, which has been used successfully to evaluate programs in the health and airline industries.

IRT uses data, rather than expertise, to determine how to score violations cited on highways and in roadside inspections. FMCSA said it will make a decision in September whether IRT can be applied to CSA.

“I believe the IRT model does a much better job of identifying those motor carriers that have a high crash rate,” said Bryan, who has run models using the method. “I wish they’d implement the darn thing.”

An FMCSA spokesman did not respond to a request for comment.

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