December 2011 | Commentary | 3PL Line

The Safety Measurement System: A Flawed Assessment of Motor Carrier Conduct

Tags: Legislation, Public Policy, and Regulations, Safety

Tom Sanderson is CEO of Transplace, and chairman of the Alliance for Safe, Efficient, and Competitive Truck Transportation, 972-731-4540

Developed to support the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration's (FMCSA) Compliance, Safety, Accountability (CSA) initiative, the Safety Measurement System (SMS) methodology is intended to monitor motor carrier and commercial motor vehicle driver safety performance. It must pass rigorous review before it becomes law.

Under the Administrative Procedure Act, the FMCSA must consider the effect these rules will have on the motor carrier industry, the cost of regulation, and its impact on small business enterprises, in particular.

There is no proof that SMS methodology is a better measure of safety than the objective-based compliance review currently required by statute. SMS methodology is based on "grading on a curve," which assumes that half the motor carriers it rates are somehow marginal or deficient.

Repeatedly, carriers with very low crash rates and satisfactory safety ratings score poorly under SMS methodology based on flawed data, fuzzy math, and technical violations that have no proven correlation to safety.

Highway fatalities involving trucks are at an all-time low. A mass of new regulations are not needed, particularly when competition, efficiency, and jobs are at stake. Yet the broker and shipper community has been slow to realize the effect of SMS methodology.

Unsafe? Says Who?

Vendors selling carrier-monitoring programs have attempted to make shippers and brokers feel they must second-guess the FMCSA's ultimate fitness determination to avoid vicarious liability or negligent selection lawsuits. Shippers, like the traveling public, should be protected by the regulations and the regulators, who should be solely responsible for certifying safety. We should not be required to second-guess the FMCSA's ultimate determination, or be subjected to suits based on state law when federal law should have preemptive effect.

The current data available for download from the FMCSA Web site reports on 768,000 truck and bus carriers. Inspection data from the past two years exists for 325,000 carriers. Of those, 91,722 possess enough data to have at least one Behavior Analysis & Safety Improvement Categories (BASIC) score. This means that 88 percent of federally authorized motor carriers are not being measured by the new system.

Of those with a BASIC score, 51,230 have at least one score above the FMCSA limbo bar. That's right: more than 50 percent of all carriers that have a score on at least one BASIC have at least one BASIC above FMCSA's arbitrary threshold.

A system that, based on arbitrary compliance thresholds, suggests half of motor carrier capacity is unfit for the shipping public to use, cannot be accepted by the shipper and broker community.

The major flaw in SMS methodology is that, regardless of how well the motor carrier industry performs, the system will always brand 50 percent or more of the carriers it measures as deficient. In a time of capacity shortage, unemployment, and economic woe, the last thing our industry needs is to curtail available carriers and stifle competition in the false name of improved safety.

The shipper and broker community must take a critical and hard look at this new system and consider the economic and compliance burden it threatens to create.