November 22, 2010 3:30 AM, EST

FMCSA to Make CSA Changes Before System’s December Debut

By Eric Miller, Staff Reporter

This story appears in the Nov. 22 print edition of Transport Topics.

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration said last week that it was making several changes to its CSA safety monitoring system that industry officials said would shield the industry from misleading interpretations.

Specifically, FMCSA said that when it opens the CSA scoring system up for public viewing in December, it will hold back the data in the cargo securement category.

“This is a very important and substantial change, particularly for hazmat carriers and open-deck carriers who were disproportionately affected by the scoring methodology,” said Rob Abbott, vice president of safety policy for American Trucking Associations.

The federal safety agency also said it will change the terminology of references to poorly rated carriers and would post disclaimers on the data warning against misconstruing the meaning of the CSA scores.

FMCSA acted after several trucking groups, including ATA, urged it to make the changes.

Abbott said the changes were needed because, “We identified a number of members, very safe, responsible carriers, whose scores in all other areas accurately reflected their commitment to safety but their scores in this category we felt erroneously painted them as being unsafe.”

The changes, FMCSA said on Nov. 18, were “based on feedback and analysis” collected over the three months that have passed since carriers became able to access their scores.

The most notable change is likely to be the softening of the terms FMCSA assigns carriers with high scores — changing it to “alert” rather than “deficient.”

When FMCSA Administrator Anne Ferro addressed ATA members in Phoenix at the group’s annual Management Conference & Exhibition last month, she said the agency was making that and other changes in response to industry concerns.

“We’ve had a great deal of opportunity to talk to the industry,” Ferro said at the time, adding the agency wanted to get away from “trigger language” on the CSA website (click here for previous story).

In addition, FMCSA said it would refine the terminology it uses to clarify that BASIC scores that do not constitute a safety rating or safety fitness determination, but instead signify that a carrier may be in line for an FMSCA inspection, warning letter or other enforcement action.

For its system, FMCSA divided all possible carrier violations into seven categories, called BASICs: driver fitness, fatigued driving, unsafe driving, cargo securement, vehicle maintenance, drug and alcohol violations and the crash indicator.

The clarification language will be displayed with a “pop-up” disclaimer alerting users entering the system to the meaning and intent of the scores and cautioning against misuse.

FMCSA also said it was planning to hold back the data in the cargo-securement BASIC because the way the scores were being calculated was “over-representing certain industry segments and potentially creating a misleading safety alert warning.”

In August, when the agency opened the CSA system for carriers to view their scores, it also changed the values of several violations within the cargo-securement BASIC, despite a preliminary study of the program suggesting a tenuous connection between cargo-related violations and crash risk.

FMCSA said it “concluded that the cargo related BASIC [should] be recalibrated with [experts] providing input on the cargo securement severity weights.”

Having received that input, FMCSA said it would adjust “the severity weights and run the algorithm accordingly.”

American Trucking Associations said in a statement it backed FMCSA’s decision to hold back data and modify the program.

“ATA continues to support the objectives of CSA 2010 . . . and we are pleased with the agency’s decision to continue working on its cargo-related BASIC to get it right before it’s made public,” said ATA President Bill Graves.

“Hopefully, it will lead to a better understanding of CSA 2010 by those who procure transportation services,” said Joe Rajkovacz, regulatory affairs director for the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association. “Many in trucking don’t seem to have a basic understanding of how to interpret the data; it’s even worse with shippers and brokers.”

ATA’s Abbott said the agency made the decision to delay public viewing of the crash indicators after finding “underlying data problems.”

“By keeping the cargo-related category dark, they’re basically saying the scores in that category don’t necessarily fit and we’ve got to modify the system and the math to make sure that it’s more accurate and effective,” Abbott said.

Changing the “deficient” notation to “alert” is essentially saying “this score doesn’t necessarily mean the carrier is unsafe but that it means the data is an indicator that’s alerted the agency to the need to further review a carrier’s performance or some sort of intervention,” Abbott said.

Abbott said the crash-indicator data probably would “stay dark” indefinitely until the underlying data can be improved.

“It’s a matter of gathering the data from the states and improving the reporting by states of commercial motor vehicle crashes,” Abbott said.

Changing the cargo-related BASIC probably will take from six months to a year to “effectively change the methodology and test it to be sure that the corrections and re-calibrations are accurate,” Abbott said.