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June 13, 2011 5:30 AM, EDT

Mississippi Fleets’ CSA Scores Jeopardized When Political Dispute Stalls 30,000 Reports

By Eric Miller, Staff Reporter

This story appears in the June 13 print edition of Transport Topics.

Mississippi officials said a behind-the-scenes political dispute prevented the uploading of about 30,000 commercial motor vehicle roadside inspection reports into the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s database — probably affecting the safety scores of the large number of motor carriers who received state inspections.

The dispute technically ended last month when officials of the Mississippi Department of Transportation and Department of Public Safety signed an agreement, but the state has barely begun the mammoth task of uploading the huge backlog of about 30,000 inspection reports into FMCSA’s database, said Willie Huff, director of the state DOT’s Office of Enforcement.

“We hope to upload the inspections quickly,” Huff told Transport Topics last week. “We know it could affect truckers’ and drivers’ safety ratings. It could very well cause someone to have an audit that didn’t need it.”

Mississippi DOT and DPS officials said the dispute began last September when former state DPS commissioner Steve Simpson said that the law-enforcement agency, designated as the lead agency in doing the inspections, no longer would recognize MDOT inspections and therefore would not forward them to FMCSA.

The inspection reports are used by FMCSA to compute Compliance, Safety, Accountability program scores and other scores for motor carriers and drivers. They are important because a carrier’s CSA scores are developed by a ratio of bad inspections to good ones — the number of violations in the context of how many total inspections a carrier has had, said Rob Abbott, vice president of safety policy for American Trucking Associations.

“So, if you had a lot of good inspections with one agency and a lot of violations with another one, but they didn’t count the good ones, your score would look horrible,” Abbott said.

One of the carriers affected by the controversy is Dedicated Logistics, Crossett, Ark.

Scott Richardson, Safety Manager of the carrier, which operates about 50 trucks, told TT a total of 14 Mississippi inspections of company trucks have been held back since September.

Those 14 inspections represented about 25% of the carrier’s total number of inspections since September, Richardson said.

“My inspections were all clear, except for one that showed a windshield cracked,” he said. “You can imagine how that kills your CSA scores — with your bad ones entered, and your good ones not entered.”

“It’s a terrible thing to deal with when you’re doing what you’re supposed to do,” Richardson said. “There’s no telling how many companies that have terribly skewed scores.”

An FMCSA spokeswoman in Washington, D.C., said that the agency is working with the state to ensure that inspections are “accurately recorded.”

Matthew Fix, FMCSA’s top administrator in Mississippi, did not return a phone call.

Stephen Keppler, executive director of the Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance, attributed the backlog to “some political changes down there with the leadership.”

Keppler said a prior operating agreement between the two agencies expired about a year ago and that the leadership could not iron out their inspection responsibilities. He said that Mississippi is unusual in that two agencies have statutory requirements to do inspections.

“In many states, it’s a singular agency that has principal responsibility for commercial vehicle safety and enforcement,” Keppler said.

In most states the responsibility goes to state police, but in a few states, the DOT or the Department of Motor Vehicles conducts inspections, Keppler said.

In Mississippi, MDOT officers perform about 60,000 inspections annually, while DPS does about 25,000, Huff said.

Lt. Donald McCain, program manager for the DPS Motor Carrier Safety Division, said he doesn’t know why the prior DPS commissioner decided to stop accepting MDOT inspections, but he said the two agencies now are working together to eliminate the massive inspection backlog that he agrees numbers about 30,000.

“It’s not something that going to happen overnight,” McCain told TT. “It’s a lot of electronic data that we’ve got to filter through to make sure that it’s all good quality data to send up.”

“I have talked to numerous trucking companies who have called here to reference this,” McCain added.

The controversy that caused the rift between the two agencies has continued for the past two state legislative sessions, Huff said.

“In the past, there had been a desire to move some of the employees from the Mississippi Department of Transportation over to the Department of Public Safety,” he said.

But when that didn’t happen, Huff said, the previous DPS commissioner refused to recognize or upload inspections done by MDOT.