Inspector General reveals mixed results regarding FMCSA’s mandate to reform CSA

The U.S. Department of Transportation Office of Inspector General (OIG) released a report to Congress assessing the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s mandated efforts to more accurately assess motor carriers that present a high propensity for a crash and require intervention.

The year-long assessment is encapsulated in a 27-page report released Sept. 27, 2019. Through the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act of 2015 (FAST Act), Congress directed FMCSA to engage the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) to study its Compliance, Safety, Accountability (CSA) methodology for identifying problem motor carriers by reevaluating the Safety Management System (SMS) data.

The FAST Act also required FMCSA to develop a corrective action plan following the NAS study and the Office of Inspector General (OIG) to assess that plan in a report to Congress, particularly how well FMCSA addressed the recommendations issued by NAS, OIG and the Government Accountability Office (GAO).

In June 2017, NAS made six recommendations designed to help FMCSA improve the accuracy of its carrier prioritization methodology that’s used in its CSA program:

  • Develop an Item Response Theory (IRT) model over the next two years [i.e., by June 2019], and if it performs well in identifying and prioritizing motor carriers for intervention, use the IRT model to replace SMS.
  • Collaborate with states and other agencies to improve the quality of Motor Carrier Management Information Systems (MCMIS) data in support of SMS. Two specific data elements require immediate attention: carrier exposure and crash data. Current exposure data is missing with high frequency, and what is collected is likely of unsatisfactory quality.
  • Investigate ways of collecting data that will likely benefit the recommended methodology for safety assessment, including data on carrier characteristics such as driver turnover rate, type of cargo, method and level of compensation and better information on exposure. This additional data collection will likely require additional funds for research and development of the data collection instrument.
  • Structure a user-friendly version of the MCMIS data file without personally identifiable information to facilitate its use by external parties such as researchers and carriers. Make user-friendly computer code used to compute SMS elements [publicly] available to individuals in accordance with reproducibility and transparency guidelines.
  • Undertake a study to better understand the statistical operating characteristics of the percentile ranks to support decisions regarding the usability of public scores.
  • Given that there are good reasons for both absolute and relative measures on safety performance, use both SMS percentile ranks and the SMS measures to prioritize which carriers receive alerts. Compute safety scores conditionally within groups of similar carriers, as well as unconditionally for all motor carriers.

The OIG’s report revealed concern that FMCSA did not fully respond to recommendations to improve SMS transparency and carrier safety rankings. The report states, “While the Agency acknowledged benefits to making SMS data publicly available on the web, FMCSA neither explained how these would be user-friendly nor included FAST Act-required estimated costs or an implementation plan.”

The NAS recommended the FMCSA consider vehicle miles traveled and other considerations when assessing some risk factors; however, after completing an analysis on the usability of International Registration Plan (IRP) data, FMCSA concluded such data would improve only two percent of the Motor Carrier Management Information System (MCMIS) data. FMCSA subsequently concluded collecting the additional mileage data would not be beneficial.

FMCSA Administrator Raymond Martinez stated FMCSA “has no immediate plans to collect data on carrier exposure and additional crash data, after reaching out to the industry and determining that much of the data doesn’t exist.”

Earlier in the week, Jack Van Steenburg, FMCSA chief safety officer and assistant administrator, commented at the Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance Annual Meeting held in Biloxi, Mississippi, that public meetings regarding possible reforms would be held very soon.

While sometimes critical of FMCSA, the report also highlights many of the challenges the administration faces in reforming the much-maligned CSA sand SMS system. It is important that FMCSA get this right as it will affect every motor carrier. The relevance of every violation (there are 899 of them!) and crash must be analyzed for its correlation with the possibility of a crash.

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