Good riddance SFD rule: FMCSA withdrawal underscores CSA’s lingering problems

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Updated Apr 18, 2017

Late last month, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration formally withdrew its Notice of Proposed Rulemaking regarding carrier safety fitness determination originally published in the Federal Register in January 2016. In addition, the agency announced it would scrap plans to issue a Supplemental Notice of Proposed Rulemaking that would have allowed it to retool the troubled rule.

In February, 62 national and regional trucking organizations sent a letter to U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao seeking to withdraw the NPRM. Citing that correspondence as well as comments received in response to the proposed rule, FMCSA essentially sent itself back to the drawing board.

The sudden cancellation of the SFD proposal was undoubtedly a relief to nearly every corner of the trucking community. “The American Trucking Associations has long supported using data to target enforcement activities against bad actors in our industry,” said Chris Spear, ATA president and CEO in a statement after FMCSA announced the rule’s withdrawal. “However, numerous reviews have shown flaws in the data and in the CSA system, so it makes sense to withdraw this rule which would have used CSA data to create publicly available fitness ratings.”

But the fact that FMCSA proceeded with publishing the SFD proposal in the first place is worrisome at best. Upon its release, it was met with 171 comments, almost all against the proposal.

The NPRM proposed replacing the current three-tiered rating system – satisfactory, conditional and unsatisfactory – with a single “unfit” rating. Many detractors felt the absence of a “fit” designation was a tacit endorsement that all carriers not rated “unfit” were safe operators.

Most objections to the SFD proposal centered around flaws with FMCSA’s Compliance Safety Accountability Safety Measurement System, the data that would have been used by FMCSA largely to assign an unfit rating. The agency has been tinkering with the troubled CSA program since it was rushed into action nearly seven years ago, and it still is no closer to perfect than it was in December 2010.

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These objections included concerns over the ability to effectively challenge violations without attached citations in the DataQ process, the Crash Indicator BASIC not having crash causation included in the methodology, and uneven enforcement of Unsafe Driving BASIC-related violations, including speeding, from state to state. That the proposed rule would have expanded FMCSA’s ability to assign carrier safety ratings based solely on potentially flawed on-road safety data is downright scary.

Then there’s the issue argued by many that the agency’s SFD proposal was invalid from the onset since language in the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act required the completion of a correlation study from the National Academies of Science to reform the CSA program to better achieve its goals of targeting unsafe operators. That report is not expected to be published until June.

So what made FMCSA think it was ready to move ahead with the SFD proposal in the first place? Your guess is as good as mine, but pulling the proposal off the table shows how little assurance it had in its own ability to defend its plan to rate carriers based on currently available data. And it certainly doesn’t instill much confidence going forward that another revised SFD proposal will be much better.