FMCSA changing how it identifies unsafe carriers

WASHINGTON — The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration plans to change the way it evaluates trucking company safety by upgrading its current ranking model as opposed to installing a new one.

In a notice to be published Wednesday, FMCSA announced it has determined that an advanced statistical model known as Item Response Theory (IRT) — a model touted by the National Academy of Sciences — is “overly complex,” and therefore the agency would not be using it to regulate carrier safety.

Instead, FMCSA has committed to improving its own Safety Management System (SMS) as the way it labels carriers with the highest crash risk and those not fit to operate.

“Safety is FMCSA’s core mission,” said Robin Hutcheson, the agency’s administrator. “The proposed changes are part of the agency’s continued commitment to enhancing the fairness, accuracy and clarity of our prioritization system.”

FMCSA has been under pressure by Congress to improve how it evaluates carrier safety fitness — with the goal of reducing crashes — after changes were called for in the FAST Act of 2015. The Department of Transportation’s Office of Inspector General increased the pressure in 2019 when it called for FMCSA to expedite improvements.

While analyzing the IRT model as a potential remedy, FMCSA found areas in which SMS could be improved to better identify high-risk carriers “without the complications inherent in adopting an IRT model.”

FMCSA summarized the proposed improvements to SMS as:

  • Reorganized and updated safety categories, including new segmentation.
  • Consolidated violations.
  • Simplified violation severity weights.
  • Proportionate percentiles instead of safety event groups.
  • Improved intervention thresholds.
  • Greater focus on recent violations.
  • Updated utilization factor.

Among the changes, FMCSA plans to reorganize SMS’ seven Behavior Analysis Safety Improvement Categories (BASIC) to better identify specific safety problems and also pare down the 959 violations used in SMS by combining them into 116 violation groups.

For example, in the Driver Fitness BASIC, carriers that operate straight trucks, as opposed to combination tractor-trailers, have much higher violation rates than those that operate combination vehicles, FMCSA found. Therefore, “segmenting the Driver Fitness BASIC into Straight and Combination segments more effectively identifies carriers with higher crash rates in both segments.”

In addition, FMCSA acknowledged that assigning severity weights to violations in SMS on a scale of 1 to 10 “has been criticized as overly subjective.” The agency subsequently found simplifying the severity weights identifies carriers with higher crash rates.

“This change would maintain the safety focus on those violations severe enough to result in an [out-of-service] order while removing the subjectivity and complications of distinguishing each violation by severity on a scale of 1 through 10.”

FMCSA also intends to focus more on recent violations when prioritizing carriers for roadside inspections. If all a carrier’s violations in a particular safety category are 12 months or older, it will not be assigned a percentile in that category.

FMCSA found this change would result in 1,081 carriers no longer having a safety category at or above the threshold for the agency having to intervene and that those carriers had a crash rate 13% lower than the national average.

“Removing carriers with no recent violation in those safety categories would allow the agency to focus its resources on carriers that pose a greater safety risk,” FMCSA stated.

One change FMCSA considered – but would not be proposing – is attempting to account for differences in inspection and violation rates among states, which some have asserted leads to unfair SMS results for carriers operating in high-enforcement states.

However, “applying a model that de-emphasizes enforcement in certain states would disincentivize FMCSA’s…partners from undertaking enforcement initiatives that are intended to address particular safety issues in their states,” FMCSA contends. “FMCSA believes that it should encourage all states to continually raise the bar for safety rather than discounting the safety efforts of certain states.”

Commenting on FMCSA’s proposed changes to SMS, “what surprised us was the foundational nature” of some of the changes, P. Sean Garney, co-director of Scopelitis Transportation Consulting, told FreightWaves.

“It’s going to take some time to understand what impact these changes will have on the regulated community,” Garney said. “Ultimately, the mark of success for any of these changes is how it impacts crash rate. Time will tell.”

FMCSA is providing a 90-day comment period on the proposal, which will be due May 16. The agency is also conducting four public online question-and-answer webinars. Registration for those can be found here

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