FMCSA Proposes Changes to Its Motor Carrier Safety Measurement System

trucks on highway
Frank Franklin II/Associated Press

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The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration has announced it won’t adopt a complex data collection method recommended in 2017 by a special National Academy of Sciences academic panel to calculate safety scores for motor carriers.

However, the agency said in a Feb. 14 notice that it will make changes to its motor carrier Safety Measurement System that will include using certain aspects of the complex data collection method known as the Item Response Theory.

“Since 2010, FMCSA has used its Safety Measurement System to identify motor carriers for safety interventions,” FMCSA said in a pre-publication Federal Register post. “The National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences recommended on June 27, 2017, that FMCSA develop and test a new statistical model.”

Nearly five years later, the agency said it has studied and tested the provisions of the IRT model, but found that it “revealed many limitations and practical challenges.”

“As a result, FMCSA has concluded that IRT modeling does not perform well for the agency’s use in identifying motor carriers for safety interventions, and therefore, does not improve overall safety,” the agency notice said.

However, the agency’s IRT analysis revealed areas in which the current Safety Measurement System could be improved to better identify high-risk carriers for intervention, without the complications inherent in adopting an IRT model.

“Those improvements include reorganizing the Behavior Analysis and Safety Improvement Category, now called “safety categories,” to better identify specific safety problems and combining the 959 violations used in SMS, plus 14 additional violations not currently used in SMS, into 116 violation groups,” the announcement said. “In addition, the changes include simplifying violation severity weights, removing percentile jumps that occur when carriers move into a new safety event group, and adjusting the Intervention Thresholds.”

FMCSA prioritizes carriers for safety interventions, such as audits or other forms of investigation, when their SMS scores in the seven BASIC categories reach or exceed pre-established levels called Intervention Thresholds. Because higher percentiles represent worse safety performance, a lower Intervention Threshold is the goal.

The SMS quantifies the safety performance of motor carriers using data available in the agency’s motor carrier database, the Motor Carrier Management Information System. “This database includes violations found during inspections, traffic enforcement and investigations, as well as crash and motor carrier census data,” FMCSA said.

The problems identified in the IRT analysis ranged from a heavy bias toward identifying smaller carriers that have few inspections with violations and limited on-road exposure to crash risk to not using vehicle miles traveled or power units to adjust for differences in on-road exposure in the Unsafe Driving BASIC. Also, regulators said that the IRT method was “not readily understandable by most stakeholders or the public.”

Some of the proposed changes to the current SMS safety categories include organizing roadside violations into violation groups for prioritization purposes; simplifying violation severity weights; adjusting some of the intervention thresholds that identify companies for possible intervention; and more changes aimed at comparing similar motor carriers to each other.

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A new website, the Compliance Safety Accountability Prioritization Preview, which is now live, is the first phase of planned updates to the agency’s SMS. The agency said motor carriers can visit the website to preview how their data would appear under the proposed changes.

“Companies are encouraged to preview these results and submit feedback on the proposed changes to FMCSA at the Federal Register website. Other users will be able to view sample pages,” FMCSA said.

The agency said it will accept public comments through May 16.