CSA: unfair enforcement ‘disparity’ or appropriate safety choices?

Updated Nov 15, 2013

(EDITOR’s NOTE: This is Part 4 of a series on CSA, based on several presentations, discussion and follow-up from the recent American Trucking Associations Management Conference and Exhibition. Part 1 focuses on whether CSA is, essentially, a new safety rating. In Part 2, FMCSA explains changes to the carrier safety information website. In Part 3, representatives of ATA and FMCSA  debate the program’s effectiveness.

Vigillo graphicVigillo founder and CEO Steve Bryan is quite the slide-showman, and his PowerPoint performances – in which he reshuffles CSA data in amusing and sometimes startling ways – are typically well received by trucking audiences. A gathering of carrier execs for the recent ATA MC&E was no different – except, maybe, for the presence the government’s point man on CSA, who did not appreciate his agency’s hard work being “misused.”

Not that trucking companies think Compliance, Safety, Accountability is really all that funny, either. The joke, after all, could be on them.

Indeed, Bryan opens his portion of the CSA session with a photo of the company’s Portland, Ore., headquarters and points out that the Vigillo sign does not have a DOT number on it.

“I sometimes am guilty of being perhaps a little more vocal, a little more critical, with respect to what we see out there in the CSA data,” he said. “My company is not subject to interventions.”

He emphasizes that the presentation is based on the FMCSA’s own inspection and violation data, and his number-crunching this time around focuses on the huge number of Vehicle Maintenance violations that are written compared to all other BASICs – more than 80 percent of the total.

So Bryan poses his thesis: “It is clearly maintenance that receives the overwhelming attention from enforcement. Doesn’t it seem intuitive that we should focus on traffic enforcement?”

He drills a little deeper, comparing the number of lamp violations to speeding violations. Nationally, that ratio is about 12 to 1. In Indiana, known to truckers for aggressive speed enforcement, the ratio is only 2 to 1. Yet in Texas officers write 321 times more lighting violations than speeding tickets.

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Additionally, Texas enforcement personnel write 16 times more windshield wiper violations than all of the drug and alcohol violations in the U.S. combined.

The point, Bryan emphasizes, isn’t to pick on Texas, but to illustrate the wide disparity between what enforcement is focused on in different parts of the country.

“I think slowing trucks down probably will have more impact than a few trailer lights that might not be functioning,” Bryan said.

(A more complete discussion of the Vigillo analysis of enforcement “hot spots,” as well as a video of a previous Bryan presentation, can be found here.)

While the trucking company representatives in the room gave Bryan a boisterous hand, the man who oversees all of FMCSA’s enforcement programs – and who was also on the panel –  was not amused.

Bill Quade, FMCSA associate administrator for enforcement and program delivery, had already told the audience that he tends “to be a little bit defensive” about CSA, and that he’s “very, very proud” of the development and implementation.

He was quick to discount the significance of the Vigillo enforcement disparity.

“Data is dangerous,” Quade said.

And Bryan misses the point. FMCSA encourages states to develop commercial vehicle safety plans targeting their own specific issues – in fact, Congress mandates it, Quade explains.

“I don’t know if we’re ever going to get to national uniformity,” he said. “We fund the states and have a certain ability to influence them, but at the end of the day there’s the thing about the Constitution – there is a state role and there is a federal role.”

Additionally, some states choose to spend more on commercial vehicle enforcement than the federal allotment, which also impacts the comparative data.

As to the disparity between speeding violations and lamp citations, “we’ve got about 10,000 people who know how to inspect a truck in this country; we have about 500,000 who know how to pull somebody over and give them a speeding ticket,” Quade said – so truck inspectors need to be inspecting trucks.

Additionally, Quade points out that oftentimes traffic enforcement does not include a truck inspection, so a speeding ticket might not make into the carrier database. (That’s an issue FMCSA is “embarrassed about” and one the agency is working on, he adds.)

Of course, when the man who played a key role in rolling out CSA and its data-driven framework says that “data is dangerous,” it’s worth a follow up.

And Quade clarified, reasonably, that he referred to Bryan’s “misuse” of the data. Except, of course, those carriers who grade out poorly under CSA would say it’s the misuse of data by regulators that’s dangerous.

Bryan, given his own turn to respond later, stands by the Vigillo analysis.

“Vigillo doesn’t have people out gathering this data. FMCSA does. We’re simply looking at it. I don’t think I’m misusing anything,” he told CCJ.

Bryan says enforcement personnel often appear with him on similar panels at state trucking association meetings, and are in the audience.

“I try to strike a balance where I’m respectful,” he said. “But I work for the industry and if I see something truckers need to know, I’m likely to say it.”

Bryan notes he has discovered “a huge gap in the education” of enforcement.

“I bet if you gave them a CSA test they would not do very well. There’s been so much work done in the industry in educating everybody, all the way down to the drivers. I don’t think that’s happened nearly as effectively on the enforcement side,” Bryan said. “We’re very anxious to spread the gospel. If there’s an opportunity to work with enforcement, let’s do it. All we know is what we see in the data.”

A representative of local, state and federal motor carrier safety officials, however, insists CSA hasn’t changed the way enforcement does its business at the roadside, and that differing enforcement priorities are appropriate and necessary.

“Enforcement isn’t making stuff up out there. A regulation is a regulation. Compliance is compliance,” says Steve Keppler, executive director of the Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance. “The thing that people need to be careful about is looking at the data without having any context to it. Every state is different, for a whole host of reasons. Texas is going to have different issues than California. “

He cites the number of personnel, the inspection facilities, even the weather.

“I don’t call it enforcement ‘disparity,’ I call it enforcement ‘differences,’” Keppler told CCJ. “It’s not an apple-to-apples comparison. The conversation needs to be ‘outcomes’ rather than ‘inputs.’ Overall, crash rates and violations are coming down.”

Ultimately, carriers also have unique circumstances, including different equipment for different operations and freight.

“Enforcement’s not going to be uniform because the industry’s not uniform,” Keppler said. “We need to be real careful about how we’re talking about this.”