July 6, 2017 10:30 AM, EDT

FMCSA Decides to Heed Advice of CSA Panel, Baffling Some Truckers

Jeff Parr/Flickr

A decision by federal trucking regulators to adopt sweeping recommendations of an elite academic panel’s study assessing the way truckers are safety-rated has been mostly well received by the industry; yet some truckers admit they are a bit baffled by the complex “item response theory,” or IRT, approach to revamp the federal Compliance, Safety, Accountability program.

Others wonder if program’s challenges can be overcome.

The study, conducted by a 12-member panel of academics chosen by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, concluded that the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s CSA program’s controversial Safety Measurement System to identify motor carriers at high risk for crashes is “conceptually sound” though several features need improvement.

The panel recommended that over the next two years, regulators develop a more “statistically principled approach” based on an “item response theory” — that is, a more detailed data-oriented approach. Ideally, that approach would dig deeper and measure the performance of individual trucks and buses, not just at the motor carrier level.

The agency said earlier this month that it has accepted the study’s conclusions and plans to move forward with implementation. FMCSA is required to submit an action plan to Congress in 120 days.

Trucking trade groups such as American Trucking Associations and the Truckload Carriers Association said the study recommendations offer the potential to solve some of the many CSA criticisms by industry and researchers such as the American Transportation Research Institute and the Government Accountability Office.

“I think the report did a good job highlighting some of the concerns that industry has brought up,” said Sean Garney, ATA’s director of safety policy. “The real question is how is FMCSA going to interpret this? But the even bigger question is how, and can, FMCSA get all the data that is needed?

Garney added, “Until we get a look under the hood, I don’t think we can make a decision about whether or not this is going to be a good fix. But let’s press the restart button, and give it another shot.”

“The recent study completed by the National Academy of Sciences reaffirms what our industry has been saying all along, that there are inconsistencies with the Safety Measurement System,” said David Heller, vice president of government affairs for the Truckload Carriers Association.

“This is something like the debate over health care,” said Henry Jasny, general counsel at Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety. “Do you fix it or do you change it? The [National Academies of Sciences] study says you could fix it. They seem to think that it’s working, but it’s sort of limping, and it could be running if they make these changes.”

“I applaud the academy for recognizing that the data that’s in the system today has two problems: It’s messy and it’s incomplete,” said Steve Bryan, president of data-analytics provider Vigillo Inc. “But the statistics that underlie [the item response theory] are monstrously complex. The agency is going to have to work with outside, independent, unbiased, trusted statisticians.”

Bryan also suggested that to collect the data FMCSA needed to make the IRT approach work may take congressional action.

The prospects of carriers revealing their vehicle miles traveled by state, one of the suggestions by the panel, will be difficult, Bryan said.

Nor will carriers likely voluntarily provide FMCSA with such data as their driver pay, driver retention or the type of freight they carry.

“I’ve talked to a couple of motor carriers about that and they just laugh out loud,” Bryan said.

The academy study said one of the agency’s challenges is that it only has access to limited information from its Motor Carrier Management Information System, a major source for FMCSA inspection, crash, compliance review, safety audit and registration data.

The study recommendations could accelerate the update process begun in 2008 with the Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance, said Collin Mooney, the group’s executive director.

“One of the challenges with [Motor Carrier Management Information System ] is that it’s an old legacy system that truncates the violations that we put into a roadside inspection report,” Mooney said. “So there’s character limits. If we want to add additional clarifying information that would be reflective on the inspection report it’s not reflected in the inspection database.”

Dan Murray, ATRI’s vice president of research, said he wished the study was more hard-hitting and that the panel “went too easy” on FMCSA.

“But I think the study’s findings, conclusions and the analysis were dead-on,” he said, adding, “In they’re analysis they’ll say things like FMCSA ‘ought to’ mandate clean inspections as an input to CSA. But then the recommendation says they ‘strongly encourage’ it.”

“I do want to throw in that it’s the best thing we’ve had come out of Washington, D.C., in terms of a blueprint for fixing CSA,” Murray said.