Scrubbing the safety numbers

Last month, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration changed the process by which motor carriers can challenge accident preventability determinations for crashes used to determine safety ratings and SafeStat scores. Now carriers will be able to correct the record before the results of a compliance review are finalized and uploaded to the SafeStat database. Previously, trucking companies had to appeal to FMCSA for a safety rating change and data correction after they received an adverse compliance review.

That sounds like a fairly minor change, and I suppose, in the scheme of things, it is. But the new policy represents a positive step toward improving SafeStat, which is FMCSA’s complex formula for identifying high-risk carriers based on a statistical analysis of their accident, driver, vehicle and safety management review data. FMCSA uses SafeStat to target carriers for compliance reviews, the results of which feed back into the SafeStat database.

The new policy decreases the chances that inaccurate ratings and data will go public.

Shippers often require carriers to maintain satisfactory safety ratings, and insurers may weigh safety ratings and SafeStat rankings in their coverage and pricing decisions. Anyone can readily obtain a carrier’s safety ratings and SafeStat scores through FMCSA-sponsored websites.

There’s a larger issue here, however. SafeStat is only as good as the data that feeds it. FMCSA depends on data generated in individual states, so it’s difficult for the agency to ensure quality. Indeed, the Department of Transportation’s inspector general concluded about three years ago that the department couldn’t really identify high-risk carriers because the database was incomplete, inaccurate and often out-of-date.

Consider accidents. One trucking company recently found that 26 accidents counted in FMCSA’s database didn’t even belong to the carrier. Another carrier found that among 167 accidents listed for it in the system, 37 were either not recordable or not theirs. In many cases, the accident should have been charged to a different carrier with the same or similar name.

Carriers also complain about lack of uniformity. Again, recordable accidents are a case in point. Federal rules are quite clear. An accident is recordable if there is a fatality or an injury requiring immediate medical treatment away from the scene or if one of the vehicles must be towed from the scene. The American Trucking Associations has found that some states apparently use the National Safety Council standard for a recordable accident: $1,000 or more in damage. That standard would, of course, capture far more accidents. The result, ATA suggests, is an inconsistency that weakens SafeStat as a tool for targeting high-risk carriers.

Another factor that can skew SafeStat scores is the Form MCS-150, which states basic information on the carrier, such as location, commodities hauled and number of power units and drivers. FMCSA bases its accident rate calculations on the power unit figure appearing on the MCS-150. If you now have 250 power units, for example, but your MCS-150 says you have 10, there’s a very good chance that your accident rate will draw attention.

Until very recently, carriers were required to file an MCS-150 only once – before it began operating. FMCSA now requires carriers to file updated forms at least every two years. Especially if your fleet is growing, it’s in your interest to file more frequently.

If FMCSA is to use SafeStat to allocate its limited oversight resources, it should do more to ensure accuracy and consistency. The agency also should periodically revalidate its SafeStat methodology to ensure that the system still identifies the carriers that are most likely to be unsafe. Remember the old adage: garbage in, garbage out.

Avery Vise is editorial director of Commercial Carrier Journal. E-mail