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In the summer of 2017, an elite academic panel of the National Academy of Sciences sent over a slate of data-based recommendations to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration that it suggested would improve how the agency evaluates the safety of the estimated 500,000 active motor carriers it regulates.
Nearly four years later, the agency has yet to make an official call on whether to incorporate the highly complex data method known as Item Response Theory — or IRT — into its Compliance, Safety, Accountability motor carrier safety rating program. But there are indications from within the industry that the system could, in fact, improve the CSA program.
“IRT has proven that it’s very superior to CSA because of the level of data, and because of the methodology behind it,” said Eric Waldinger, chief marketing officer of Denver-based driver risk management software company SambaSafety. SambaSafety already has run IRT models that have proven to be superior to CSA models, Waldinger said. “In our opinion, it moves our industry to a whole other level of data and transparency.”
Waldinger said some of the delay is attributable to leadership uncertainty at FMCSA over the past 18 months, along with anticipation that the Biden administration will want to fully review the potentially sweeping data model. The analysis by the agency was originally expected to cost $1.4 million and only take two years to complete.
“FMCSA has been pretty tight lipped on exactly what’s happening on CSA/IRT lately,” said Sean Garney, vice president of Arlington, Va.-based Scopelitis Transportation Consulting. “I have no doubt this is because the new administration is closely scrutinizing the work done to date to make sure it aligns with its policy priorities,” Garney said.
Daniel Horvath, vice president of safety policy for American Trucking Associations, said he has heard that the agency is still reviewing and testing the IRT model to determine if it will ultimately replace the current CSA methodology.
“The feedback that I have consistently heard from FMCSA is that the IRT methodology is so complex that it is difficult to explain to a carrier, driver or even Congress — why a carrier’s score is the way it is,” Horvath said. “While much of the discussion has been on a change to IRT, it’s not necessarily a given — as the agency may choose to pursue a mix of methodologies or even decide to keep things similar to the way they are today.”
The agency in September missed a promised target date for an update on its IRT analysis. The next month, then-FMCSA Assistant Administrator Wiley Deck during an agency webinar said FMCSA had been working with a National Academy of Sciences standing committee and was finalizing a review of the models and developing options.
“But I can’t really explain it without the guys in the lab coats,” Deck joked.
The IRT method’s origins were the result of passage of the 2015 Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act that required the National Academy of Sciences to conduct a study of the CSA program and its motor carrier Safety Measurement System.
After more than a year of study, the academy panel issued a June 2017 report titled “Improving Motor Carrier Safety Measurement,” which argued for FMCSA to adopt a more statistically principled approach.
In response to the academy panel’s recommendation and the corresponding corrective action plan, FMCSA initiated a multiyear correlation study focused on developing and evaluating an IRT model to determine if the statistical rigor and complexity of IRT yields sufficient benefits compared to SMS to be integrated into the agency’s prioritization process.
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However, a September 2019 audit by the Department of Transportation Inspector General concluded that even after more than two years of study, the agency may not be able to update the system for prioritizing motor carriers in an “accurate, efficient and timely manner.”
The audit noted that FMCSA “remains concerned” about its staff’s ability to explain the model to the motor carrier industry because the agency does not have an in-house IRT expert.
But in a written response to the audit, FMCSA said it already has internally developed a variety of models, including a “full-scale” IRT model.
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