Editorial: The Value of Zero

Mathematics started tens of thousands of years ago because Stone Age people needed to count what they had, or wanted, or even what they had lost. At the start, there was no need to formally quantify the concept of nothing, or zero. At some point, though, a clever person came up with the idea of zero and it revolutionized the use of numbers.

Just as ancient people became able to distinguish between five baskets of grain and none at all, today’s trucking companies find it useful to differentiate between some safety violations and none at all. Very few minor safety violations during a roadside safety inspection is good, but nothing at all, or zero, is very special indeed.

Proponents of the federal Compliance, Safety, Accountability program say the idea is to collect a lot of inspection data to construct an accurate model of U.S. trucking. Problem carriers and drivers with lots of violations become the targets of Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration enforcement, while safe operators get less attention.

As we’ve said for about a decade now, that makes sense.

As we reported here, though, there’s some concern and disagreement about zero violations.

If a state trooper or other inspector sees some evidence of violation, the truck gets pulled over and inspected thoroughly, a report gets filed and the CSA score rises, both for the carrier and the driver. OK, fair is fair.

The problem comes with screening conversations. An inspector and a driver might talk for a minute at a weigh station, and that could include a cursory logbook inspection.

To save valuable time for driver and inspector, the latter sends the former on his or her way, but does that result in a formal filing of zero violations? Not always, said an American Transportation Research Institute study that was reviewed and confirmed by a National Academy of Sciences panel.

The Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance, which represents U.S., Canadian and Mexican inspectors, said clean inspections do get filed, but screening discussions are not really inspections. Perhaps not, but as we’ve been told, CSA is based on being an accurate model of U.S. trucking, and reality includes the presence of zeros.

For starters, every time a CVSA-affiliated inspector within the United States completes a formal inspection, Level 1 to 7, and no violation is found, we would certainly hope that is filed to FMCSA.

Beyond that, we welcome more debate and discussion in the pursuit of safety.