January 4, 2010 8:00 AM, EST

In Pursuit of Accurate Safety Ratings

This Editorial appears in the Jan. 4 print edition of Transport Topics. Click here to subscribe today.

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration has taken a step in the right direction with its Comprehensive Safety Analysis, a new way of evaluating trucking safety.

Now, some serious tweaking is in order.

CSA 2010, as it is known, is the agency’s revamping of a flawed and oft-criticized safety rating system based on the unreliable SafeStat database.

The problem is not so much with the exhaustive, top-to-bottom compliance reviews of individual fleets undertaken from time to time by FMCSA inspectors — but that such reviews are far too infrequent, target only a small percentage of all the registered truck operators and are triggered by inherently inaccurate, outdated and incomplete field reporting.

A compliance review is at least as painful as a tax audit, but inspectors arrive only when a red flag goes up — and not necessarily then.

The data in SafeStat come from hundreds of local and state law enforcement agencies, with differing sets of accident forms and levels of large-truck expertise — little or none of the latter, in many cases. At some of these budget-strapped agencies, carefully crafted reports to the federal government don’t rise to the top of their to-do lists.

So SafeStat always has produced skewed results — garbage in, garbage out, as they say.

FMCSA, to its credit, recognized the need to change the way it evaluated motor carriers when it launched CSA 2010.

Data collection — so vital to the enterprise — is being upgraded to better reflect actual safety performance. For starters, the system will look as closely at drivers as it does at equipment faults, and violations will be rated from 1 to 10, according to their severity. Several states already have begun in-depth training in the new process.

There is general agreement that overhaul is needed, but that does not mean the replacement plan is flawless. The database still rests on information generated by myriad law enforcement agencies. No one is expecting perfection here, but a much higher degree of consistency in reporting is demanded than we’ve seen thus far.

The three-tiered rating system will remain, with changes in terminology, but the effort to make it more meaningful won’t work unless a carrier’s rating is determined by the total number of miles its vehicles travel. Miles traveled, not simply fleet size, is the real measure of a carrier’s exposure to potential accidents.

Without these and other changes deep in the details, FMCSA’s safety ratings will continue to have only superficial relevance.