A congressional hearing yesterday on the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration's CSA safety enforcement program gave critics a chance to vent, but the committee appears content for the time being to let the agency and its constituents work things out.

The House Subcommittee on Highways and Transit has no immediate plans for legislation addressing CSA, although it will keep an eye on the issue, said spokesman Justin Harclerode.

Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., the ranking minority member of the panel, said legislation would be premature at this point.

DeFazio said he will wait to see what the agency does in its pending safety fitness rulemaking. This rule, which the agency is expected to propose early next year, will formally incorporate the CSA data and rating system into a standard for determining if a carrier is fit to operate.

"The critical thing will be the rulemaking that they will propose and, as they go through the rulemaking, how this data will be utilized and what the final scoring system is going to be," DeFazio said.

He said he believes that FMCSA Administrator Anne Ferro is "getting the message" about CSA problems.

Shortcomings Undermine Effectiveness

Indeed, the concerns of carriers, shippers, brokers and the enforcement community have been the subject of public debate ever since the CSA program kicked off in 2010.

American Trucking Associations says that shortcomings in CSA data and methodologies undermine the system's effectiveness.

"While ATA takes issue with certain specific elements of the CSA methodology, there is an overarching theme: CSA scores must reflect future crash risk," Scott Mugno, vice president of safety for FedEx Ground, told the committee.

The first thing the agency must do to fix the problem is admit that CSA does not accurately and reliably identify unsafe carriers, Mugno said.

"In other words, CSA scores are not a reliable predictor of future crash risk," he said.

In addition, the agency must focus on the least-safe carriers, not just those that have compliance problems, he said. And the agency must implement changes that correct shortcomings in the data and methodology.

"Only then will CSA reach its fullest potential as a tool to improve highway safety."

Another witness, Ruby McBride, vice president of Colonial Freight Systems in Knoxville, Tenn., said that in a recent encounter with CSA, the system did not live up to its billing.

The company had a high ranking in its Fatigued Driving BASIC as a consequence of form-and-manner violations of the hours of service rule, she said. This should have triggered a warning letter, but instead the agency sent in investigators for a nine-day audit that in the end preserved the company's satisfactory rating.

"To add insult to injury, the misleading and inaccurate percentile rankings that triggered the audit remain unchanged and we are still branded as a high-risk carrier in the BASIC," she told the committee. This leads to lost business opportunities because shippers are leery of carriers with such rankings.

Compliance vs. Safety?

Colonial's high ranking illustrates one of the continuing issues with CSA. While carriers are frustrated, for obvious reasons, by form-and-manner violations skewing their scores, both FMCSA and the enforcement community say these violations are not frivolous and deserve the attention the system gives them.

"Compliance with regulations is also a critical factor in terms of (commercial motor vehicle) safety," said David Palmer, assistant chief of the Texas Department of Public Safety and a spokesman for the Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance.

He took issue with the contention that CSA should go directly and only to crash risk.

Factors that have a high correlation to risk obviously are important, but from the perspective of the inspecting officer, compliance also needs to be considered, he said.

"Some may say that hours of service records that do not include items like location changes of duty status or list miles driven are simply 'paperwork' violations. However, to an inspector, these violations are indicators that a driver could be concealing major violations," he said.

CVSA, which represents the enforcement community, believes that CSA is working much more effectively than the agency's previous system, Palmer told the panel.

"Quite frankly, CSA has brought commercial vehicle safety to the forefront of industry and enforcement like no other program in my time before it," he said.

Broker Use

Bruce Johnson, director of carrier services for the transportation brokerage company C.H. Robinson, told the committee that FMCSA needs to make several changes in the CSA program.

It should add each carrier's safety rating to screenshots that show its CSA data, and it should remove language on its website that encourages shippers to use CSA data for their own purposes, he said.

He also said that when the agency proposes its safety fitness rule, it should include a rating system that rates all unsafe carriers as unfit to operate.

And Johnson called for legislation to abolish vicarious liability for brokers and shippers due to negligent behavior on the part of the carriers they use.

Crash Data

Another major concern about CSA has to do with the lack of accountability in the crash data. The agency does not include fault in its accounting for crashes. Instead, it assumes a certain degree of fault, and uses that assumption as a predictor of future crash risk.

Carriers object to this approach, and the agency has begun a year-long study of how to correct the problem. The safety advocacy community warns, however, that the agency must proceed with caution.

Steve Owings, president and founder of Road Safe America, gave the committee a life-and-death reason for why the agency should be cautious about relying on police accident reports to determine fault in crashes.

In 2002, Owings' son, Cullum, was killed when a speeding truck ran into the back of his car as it was stopped in traffic.

The investigating officer was able to interview only the truck driver, who lied about the circumstances of the crash, Owings told the committee. Cullum's brother, Pierce, who was in the car but survived the crash, gave the true account, which later was corroborated by a private investigator hired by Owings.

"If we were limited only to the version of the crash recorded in the (Police Accident Report), and Pierce had not survived, or if Susan (Owings' wife) and I lacked the means to pay for an additional investigation, the truth would not have been discovered or proven," Owings said.

Anne Ferro explained to the committee that as part of its analysis of crash accountability it is reviewing the uniformity and consistency of police accident reports, as well as the process for making crash determinations and getting public comment.

Ferro also said the agency is undertaking regular, scheduled revisions to CSA to address concerns about the program, and recently formed an advisory committee to make sure that industry has a voice in the development of the program.