A chance to right wrongs

Since the rise of the Internet, many carrier executives feel they have little influence over the information the federal government publishes on them. Often the information is supplied by state or local law enforcement agencies. Appealing to these agencies in states all across the country can be frustrating and, often, fruitless.

Shouldn’t a federal agency be accountable for the accuracy of data it distributes? According to Congress, yes. A little-noticed provision of a fiscal 2001 funding bill ordered federal departments and agencies to ensue the quality of data provided to the public. Effective Oct. 1, 2002, the Department of Transportation issued guidelines to implement that mandate. You can read those guidelines at this site. At that same website is a link to an online form for requesting a correction.

The information correction process is a great new tool, but don’t expect it to resolve all problems with inaccurate data. Although DOT acknowledges that its guidelines probably must cover information supplied by state and local agencies, “application of the specific features of the guidelines may be very difficult.” In the case of SafeStat data, for example, DOT argues that FMCSA has no authority over law enforcement agencies. And DOT certainly doesn’t consider it appropriate for FMCSA to change the records in federal databases unilaterally.

DOT’s guidelines don’t resolve the issue, and FMCSA may take additional steps aimed primarily at making the current process more efficient. For example, FMCSA is working on some technical improvements that will allow states to correct data more easily and quickly and to place holds on disputed data. So far, there’s no hint of a stronger federal role in ensuring the accuracy of state-supplied data.

FMCSA obviously doesn’t think its systems suffer too much from inaccurate data. Indeed, in the aggregate, errors might be few. But mistakes in crash and inspection data and carrier profile information are hugely significant to the carriers involved and reduce to some degree the validity of SafeStat as a system for targeting high-risk carriers. A report expected this spring from the DOT Office of the Inspector General might shed more light on this subject.

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Meanwhile, if your carrier profile or SafeStat score is plagued by inaccurate information, take advantage of this new opportunity. If nothing else, requesting a correction from DOT should strengthen your hand with state and local agencies. Gather the information available about your company and match it against your own records. Most safety-related information is available at www.safersys.org. Then take a few steps to ensure that you don’t waste the effort.

Make sure the error isn’t yours. One common complaint is that FMCSA uses a number for a carrier’s power units that is too small, seriously hurting its SafeStat score. Often, however, carriers “commit” this error by failing to update their Form MCS-150s. It’s in your interest to update the form much more frequently than the mandatory two years – especially when you are growing.

Don’t quibble over meaningless mistakes. There are numerous typographical errors that could introduce inaccurate information. Before you challenge such records, consider whether a correction would make a material difference in your SafeStat score or other public impression of you.

Don’t challenge SafeStat itself. If you don’t agree with the methodology behind SafeStat, the data correction process is not the forum for airing your grievances. For example, SafeStat reflects all recordable accidents. You are wasting your time if you challenge a recordable accident in SafeStat as not preventable.

So file those correction reports, but be careful not to make any mistakes in them. Your request will be docketed and made available to the public.