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CSA’s crash flaw: Enforcement, accident rates do not mesh

CSA'S DATA TRAIL

The article below is part of an ongoing, in-depth series on the U.S. Department of Transportation's Compliance, Safety, Accountability program that analyzes federal inspection, investigation and crash data and offers original reporting. Overdrive and CCJ editors have built a site dedicated to hosting the stories, interactive maps and downloadable data at CCJdigital.com/csa.

truck wreck csaThe largest truck fleets show crash rates well above that of one-truck carriers, yet the megafleet trucks and drivers are inspected at only a fourth of the rate of the single-truck operations, according to Commercial Carrier Journal and Overdrive’s analysis of federal data. Single-truck independent drivers are 3.5 times more likely to be put out of service than drivers for carriers with 500 or more trucks.

The carrier crash data was compiled by CCJ publisher Randall-Reilly Business Media’s RigDig Business Intelligence unit. It covers the first two years of the Compliance Safety Accountability program, launched in December 2010 by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration.

FMCSA did not respond to a request for an interview on this topic.

For one-truck operators, these enforcement disparities entail not simply the day-to-day hassles of dealing with a well-armed regulatory regime. The bad ratings that come with violations and out-of-service orders make it increasingly difficult to secure freight in a safety-scoring landscape tilted in favor of their larger competitors.

CSA graph 1While single-truck operators are the safest, accident rates – measured per million miles traveled – spike when those operators start adding trucks. The highest rates were found in fleets of two to 15 trucks. This isn’t surprising, given that fleets in that range often have no full-time manager – yet alone a full-time safety director – and tend to be less restrictive in screening prospective drivers.

But at the extreme ends of carrier size, the disconnect between driver out-of-service rates and carrier crash rates highlights seemingly intractable problems for small fleets at roadside, says Richard Wilson, regulatory manager with Trans Products Trans Services. Wilson believes, as do others, that too many inspectors, as well as FMCSA investigators, view small fleets as low-hanging fruit. For inspectors, the small fleets are easy revenue through citations. For investigators, it’s the numbers game – activity measured by fleet count – public agencies play to justify their existence.

“It’s much more efficient to compile large numbers of interventions on smaller carriers that provide the numbers necessary to meet the standards of the budget offices,” Wilson says.

The stellar accident record of one-truck independents, in some sense, is to be expected. “A guy that owns his own truck has his life savings in that truck” in many cases, says Phil McGuire, president of Texas-based McGuire Transportation, which has roughly a 100-truck mix of owner-operator and (mostly) company-owned trucks. “He doesn’t want to put a scratch on it, much less be in an accident.” Managing only yourself, McGuire adds, “you can do a lot better” keeping a handle on safety.

When carriers of any size have negative CSA percentile rankings in the public BASICs  (Behavioral Analysis and Safety Improvement Categories), brokers, shippers and insurance companies now are more interested. J. Webb Kline, owner of a Pennsylvania-based six-truck fleet, said in February he’d lost in the neighborhood of  $1.5 million in sales over the past year because brokers and shippers looked at the fleet’s Hours of Service Compliance BASIC score and determined it was a high risk.

CSA graph 2“Profit from CSA in being able to bid out your business better – or CSA will profit from you,” says David Saunders, chief executive officer of Texas-headquartered Compliance Safety Systems, which administers drug and alcohol screening programs for carriers. “Small and large carriers will have to defend themselves with customers. Say my [public BASICs] are high as a small carrier, but I don’t have a high crash rate with DOT recordables – ‘Why won’t you do business with me?’ ”

The Crash Indicator BASIC is one where owner-operators, carriers and drivers with a fairly clean crash history can benefit, says Saunders. That’s often true even for those, like Kline, with high scores in other BASICs.

The largest all-leased-owner-operator carrier in the nation, Landstar System, was able to exploit its Crash Indicator rating, says Joe Beacom, vice president of safety. In 2012, Landstar Inway – along with Landstar Ranger, one of the company’s primary truckload fleets – moved above the intervention threshold in the Hours of Service Compliance BASIC.

That raised concerns for some shippers and also marked the carrier for federal attention. Landstar voluntarily began to show shippers its private Crash Indicator percentile ranking as a way to prove its safety in ways other BASICs didn’t. “It’s 9 or so – the top 10 percent best in accident frequency in the peer group,” Beacom said.

Landstar also began requiring use of electronic onboard recorders for hours monitoring for all new lessees with Inway and Ranger. This helped turn the scores around and put the divisions back below threshold.

For small fleets with a few accidents that were not their fault, however, the opposite of Landstar’s case may well be true. Independent owner-operator Melvin Davis tells of his father’s four-truck BMD Inc. fleet, based in Michigan. Despite having a virtually perfect CSA profile – with none of the five public BASICs registering any score whatsoever – BMD has seen two accidents associated with one of its drivers in the past two years.

“Neither one of the accidents were his fault,” Davis says. “The first one definitely wasn’t, as a woman spun out on the ice in front of him. The second one was in Indianapolis on a blind curve” where traffic had stopped unexpectedly. “He was never charged with the accident,” says Davis.

And yet both accidents are part of BMD’s Crash Indicator score because there is no accounting for blame in that scoring.

“If it’s not your fault, how can you be slammed for it?” Davis asks, reflecting the opinion of many in the industry.

The conclusion of FMCSA’s research into whether it can start to account for fault in carrier crash data is due this year. Speaking to the Maryland Motor Truck Association’s Western Maryland Chapter in December 2011, FMCSA Administrator Anne Ferro said the goal of the research “is to code every interstate motor carrier crash as either ‘accountable’ or ‘not accountable’ to the motor carrier and the driver. However, this is an enormous task, and it will take time to implement.” Since then, Ferro has been less emphatic about the goals of the crash-accountability study. Other representatives in the agency have started questioning whether such an accounting is even possible in most cases.

For carriers with crashes on the record, says Saunders, the other crucial piece of the carrier self-defense pie relative to CSA is the driver and vehicle out-of-service rate. “Rather than being hung up on how un-American CSA is and how the federal government messed up, polish the image of who you are as a company and a driver,” he says. “Look for a way to position yourself as a driver and as a company to … be able to tell a shipper or insurance company” you’re dependable.

“If every time I get in that truck I have a chance of being put out of service because I violated a rule, that shipper won’t conduct business with me,” Saunders adds. “The insurance company won’t work with me.”

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Todd Dills is Senior Editor of Overdrive magazine and writes from Nashville, Tenn. He frequently covers business, regulatory and lifestyle topics for the magazine and at OverdriveOnline.com. His work on the “CSA’s Data Trail” series in Overdrive about the federal CSA program was awarded the highest honor in trade journalism – the “Grand Neal” – by American Business Media at the 2014 Jesse H. Neal Awards. Dills’ Channel 19 blog covers a grab bag of on-highway hearsay, owner-operator news and driver views from the roadways the nation over. His work in trucking journalism builds on a background of news feature, fiction and other creative writing and editing. Find him here at the Channel 19 blog and via his Twitter feed, or send tips to tdills@randallreilly.com or via phone at 205-907-2481.