Reliability of DOT Safety Oversight Program Questioned

By Roy Maurer May 20, 2015
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Employers are claiming that a government program meant to monitor truck driver safety produces an unreliable measure of a carrier’s safety record, leading to trucking operations with good safety records being flagged for investigation and problematic carriers going unnoticed.

The Department of Transportation (DOT) announced it will audit the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s (FMCSA’s) controversial safety monitoring and measurement program after a government watchdog agency, the trucking industry, drivers and lawmakers expressed ongoing concerns with its reliability.

The FMCSA’s Compliance, Safety, Accountability (CSA) program was launched in 2010 to identify high-risk motor carriers. A key component of the program—the Safety Measurement System (SMS)—uses carrier performance data collected from inspections and investigations to calculate safety scores and identify carriers at high risk of causing a crash. Warning letters, additional investigations and fines help reduce the number of motor carrier crashes, injuries, and fatalities, according to the agency. Most of the safety scores are publicly posted on the FMCSA website.

However, according to research cited by American Trucking Associations (ATA), the largest national trade association for the trucking industry, at least three of seven of the system’s measurement categories don’t bear a positive correlation to crash risk. “Even in those categories that generally have a positive correlation to crash risk, there are tens of thousands of real-world exceptions, carriers with high scores and low crash rates, and vice-versa,” according to ATA.

The relationship between scores and crash risk is impacted by a number of data and methodology problems that plague the system, according to ATA, including a “substantial lack of data, particularly on small carriers who comprise the bulk of the industry; regional enforcement disparities; the questionable assignment of severity weights to individual violations; the underreporting of crashes by states; the inclusion of crashes that were not caused by motor carriers; and the increased exposure to crashes experienced by carriers operating in urban environments.”

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) in 2014 found that some of the data used to calculate carriers’ safety scores were not accurate predictors of crash risk, and that most carriers lacked sufficient data from inspections and violations to ensure that a carrier’s score could be reliably compared with scores for other carriers. “These challenges raise questions about whether the FMCSA is able to identify and target the carriers at highest risk for crashing in the future,” said Susan A. Fleming, GAO director of physical infrastructure issues.

The GAO recommended that the FMCSA revise the safety score methodology to better account for limitations in available information, but the FMCSA did not concur with the recommendation and did not take any actions.

Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., asked for an audit of the CSA program in April 2014 after a toll worker was killed in a January 2014 incident involving a company that had been flagged for enforcement action by the FMCSA. The agency found instances of drivers falsifying duty logbooks and violating hours-of-service rules, but the trucking company was never investigated.

“The crash last year took the life of a [toll worker] who was stopped on the side of the road assisting a driver and his broken-down truck,” said Durbin in a statement. “We owe it to his family and the state police trooper who was injured in the accident to fully review why this high-risk trucking company was allowed to remain on the road.”

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has also noted instances when FMCSA investigations failed to identify or prompt action on safety issues with carriers that were involved in accidents. The NTSB investigated four carriers involved in crashes in 2013 that collectively resulted in 25 fatalities and 83 injuries. The investigations revealed that the FMCSA conducted safety reviews of the carriers prior to their crashes—one only five days before—but did not uncover certain pre-existing safety deficiencies or act on others until after the crashes.

“I hope this Inspector General investigation will give FMCSA guidance on how to identify warning signs earlier in order to avoid a tragedy like this in the future,” said Durbin.

Roy Maurer is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

Follow him @SHRMRoy

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