February 27, 2017 4:00 AM, EST

Editorial: Hit Pause on CSA Scoring

This Editorial appears in the Feb. 27 print edition of Transport Topics. Click here to subscribe today.

In business or in battle, it is often critical to consider the adage, “he who hesitates is lost,” as the window for taking advantage of an opportunity is often distressingly brief. Spend too much time pondering a situation and the landscape has changed, your chance has vanished.

Domestic regulation by government is usually not like that, though. In theory, it’s supposed to work well over a lengthy period of time and under a wide variety of circumstances. But that usually leads to great complexity, which is never a good thing.

Therefore, we are pleased to join the chorus in asking Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao to delay the proposed carrier safety fitness determination rule that uses the Safety Measurement System, a part of the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Compliance, Safety, Accountability program. A coalition of truck and bus groups recently asked Chao to hit the brakes on the rule.

CSA is administered by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. The goals underlying CSA’s construction are praiseworthy: identify unsafe carriers and drivers, specify their failings and then demand improvement and monitor performance to make sure it gets done.

No one wants to clamp down on fly-by-night vehicle operators more than the overwhelming majority in trucking that cherishes safety. Just ask the dedicated fleet maintenance directors meeting now for the Technology & Maintenance Council annual meeting.

The problem with SMS is what to measure and how to do it. In the FAST Act of 2015, Congress asked for a study of this issue that is being done by a Transportation Research Board panel.

Congress’ Government Accountability Office has found difficulties with the calculations, as have stacks of public comments. SMS measures a lot of factors, but it’s not at all clear they are directly related to real-world safety performance.

Until there is public confidence in the usefulness of SMS, FMCSA cannot use the tool to construct a final safety determination process to let the public know whether a carrier’s operations are satisfactory.

We currently have a questionable scoring system to be used as the shaky foundation for a necessary safety determination process that can’t possibly work well if the inputs are uncertain and of questionable value.

Keep the ideals of CSA but don’t proceed with the final details of safety determination until the TRB study is completed.

DOT should think before it leaps.