WASHINGTON — The United Motorcoach Association’s concerns about the federal compliance scoring system for motor carriers were validated by a recent report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.
The report about the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s Safety Measurement System (SMS) described the system as “conceptually sound” but said several of its features need improvement.
“The report confirms many of UMA’s concerns relating to disparities contained in the SMS,” said UMA president and CEO Stacy Tetschner. “UMA has been particularly concerned about how small fleet operators can be adversely affected.”
FMCSA implemented SMS to identify commercial motor vehicle carriers at high risk for future crashes.
But commercial motor carriers have long contended that the system was flawed and inappropriate for passenger carriers. Congress responded to such complaints two years ago by mandating the SMS study as part of the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act of 2015.
Despite the mandate, FMCSA issued a proposed rule last year to establish a new motor carrier safety fitness rating system based on scores generated by the agency’s Compliance, Safety, Accountability (CSA) program. SMS is part of the CSA program.
A coalition of groups representing property and passenger carriers, led by the UMA, sent a letter to Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao last spring asking that she rescind the proposed rule.
In March, FMCSA withdrew its proposed rule, saying it was awaiting the results of the National Academies study. And, after the study was completed, FMSCA said it has accepted the conclusions and plans to move forward with implementation. It is required to submit an action plan to Congress in 120 days.
The 132-page study was conducted over the past 15 months by a 12-member panel of academics, several of them specialists in statistics and transportation safety policy.
The study, released in late June, was generally complimentary of FMCSA for many of its ideas and efforts.
However, it recommended that over the next two years regulators develop a more “statistically principled approach” based on an “item response theory,” or IRT, which involves a more detailed data-oriented approach that measures the performance of individual trucks and buses.
IRT has been applied successfully in informing policy decisions in other areas such as hospital rankings, and also has a long history in commercial air, rail and waterway transportation, the study said.
“This approach to assessing safety performance is ubiquitous throughout the transportation agencies that report on safety,” the study said. “If the model is then demonstrated to perform well in identifying motor carriers that need interventions, FMCSA should use it to replace SMS.”
The study identified a number of data quality issues and recommended that FMCSA should continue to collaborate with states and other agencies to improve the collection of data on vehicle miles traveled and on crashes.
It also said FMCSA should research ways of collecting data on carrier characteristics, including driver turnover rates, type of cargo and method and level of compensation.
Compensation levels are relevant because drivers who are better compensated have fewer crashes, the study said. This additional data collection would require greater collaboration between FMCSA and the states to standardize the effort and to protect carrier-specific information, it said.
The study left open the issue of crash accountability, which remains a top concern for UMA members. The current SMS system doesn’t differentiate between crashes caused by the carrier and those where the carrier wasn’t at fault.
The report did recommend capturing better crash and operations data, such as vehicle miles traveled, a practice UMA has suggested may help differentiate carriers. Typical scheduled-service companies often travel five times the miles of charter buses annually.
“We are grateful to Congress and the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine panel that worked so diligently to prepare this report,” Tetschner said. “This report will help FMCSA identify commercial motor vehicle carriers that require intervention more accurately and fairly. At the end of the day, an improved SMS will save lives, a goal we all share. “
The National Academies study can be read at www.nationalacademies.org/newsroom/