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CSA’s Distorted Rankings, Part 1: CSA’s flawed scoring doesn’t stop third parties from judging carriers


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


Three and a half years after Compliance Safety Accountability began its radical scrambling of how trucking safety is regulated and scored, carriers and owner-operators continue to suffer from its fallout, while bureaucrats struggle to repair the complex program.


Among carriers receiving a ranking in any of the CSA BASICs (Behavioral Analysis and Safety Improvement Categories), none feel the program’s inadequacies more than the smallest independents. As one respondent noted in a recent survey on CSA by CCJ’s sister magazine Overdrive, the “small guys get looked at because a single incident shows up as a bigger percentage” with a more dramatic effect on rankings, and “not because we are unsafe.”

Unreliable small-fleet scoring was ranked the number one CSA problem in the survey. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration acknowledges CSA problems and strives for improvements. At the same time, the agency rigorously defends the system as is, with confidence in the CSA Safety Measurement System’s numerical evaluation of carriers.

[related-post id=”78156″/]“It is a good tool, and it is one of the factors that should be looked at” by all industry participants to measure carrier safety, says Bill Quade, FMCSA associate administrator for enforcement. But a growing chorus of fleets, drivers, owner-operators and others call for scores to be removed from public view until the agency gets the kinks worked out.

In Overdrive’s poll, seven in 10 called for removal of the scores, and nearly half of that group also wants all inspection and violation data to be removed. Such sentiment reflects the reality that shippers and brokers treat the scores as gospel truth, refusing to do business with fleets that, in some cases, are just as safe as they were prior to CSA’s activation.

CSA scores: To be or not to be public

It wasn’t so long ago that suppression of CSA scores was an active debate.

“Small guys get looked at because a single incident shows up as bigger percentage” with a more dramatic effect on rankings, says a survey respondent, “not because we are unsafe.”

In February 2013, a majority of the Motor Carrier Safety Advisory Committee’s CSA Subcommittee came close to officially urging the agency to withhold percentile rankings in the BASICs from public view in the CSA SMS. Removing scores from public view, however, was not an option on the table when the CSA subcommittee met this past April.

Removing the scores might not even be feasible as long as the program exists, said subcommittee member Todd Spencer, executive vice president of the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association. That’s because there’s a “cat’s-out-of-the-bag” effect in third-party reliance on the scores. If the scores were available only to law enforcement and carriers themselves, Spencer said, some shippers then likely would require disclosure as part of carrier contracts.

[related-post id=”78834″/]Another potential consequence would be a piling on of further workload for an already taxed federal agency with a flood of Freedom of Information Act requests for carrier SMS BASIC scores, said MCSAC member John Lannen of the Truck Safety Coalition of public safety advocates.

Tom Sanderson, chief executive officer of broker/3PL Transplace, told the CSA Subcommittee that “several large shippers have told us that even one BASIC over the intervention threshold knocks a carrier out of their service.”

Cream of the Crop Transportation’s Hours of Service BASIC score went beyond the intervention threshold a couple of years ago, and owner J. Webb Kline says the small fleet lost as much as $1.5 million in annual sales. It was “a glaring example of just what an economic disaster this program is for companies like ours that fall through the cracks of the system,” Kline says.

[related-post id=”90110″/]After Cream of the Crop went more than a year without an hours violation, his small fleet no longer showed any percentile ranking or score whatsoever in that BASIC, so the FMCSA warning triangle disappeared.

“Many of our old customers told me they checked every month to see if they could use us again, and they called as soon as we lost the triangle,” Kline says. “Our sales shot up from an average of$4,000 a week per truck to well over $5,000, and often exceeding $6,000 per week per truck.”

It’s not just small carriers that take issue with the public nature of SMS scores. Irwin Shires of all-owner-operator Panther Expedited Services says he’s “fought very hard” to expose fundamental flaws in CSA’s percentile ranking approach. Among the worst, he says, is the scores’ public nature.

In Panther’s small Safety Event Group of comparison (with just 73 of the largest straight-truck carriers), the percentile-ranking basis of scores in the Unsafe Driving BASIC “dooms approximately 25 carriers to never being able to improve their score to a point to where their golden triangle goes away,” Shires says. That’s because in all of the BASIC categories, the system grades on a curve, so that the weakest carriers, no matter how safe they are, fall prey to those who score better.

“It’s like a scarlet letter that brokers and shippers are using in determining whether to put their freight on a carrier’s truck,” Shires says.

Look for Parts 2 and 3 of this series next week. 


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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 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 or via phone at 205-907-2481.