The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s CSA safety enforcement program has been successful in some respects but needs improvements, says the Government Accountability Office.

CSA, which stands for Compliance, Safety, Accountability, has helped the agency expand its reach, among other benefits, but because of data shortcomings it is not as strong a predictor of crash risk as it could be, the watchdog agency said.

The agency should revise the Safety Measurement System that is a core CSA component, and it should take the limitations of the system into account when it installs the pending safety fitness regime, GAO said.

GAO undertook the analysis at the request of Senators concerned about the effectiveness of the system.

American Trucking Associations praised the review, noting that GAO’s findings echo concerns it has expressed for some time.

The review is “comprehensive, thoughtful and balanced,” said ATA President and CEO Bill Graves in a statement.

“While ATA has long supported CSA’s objectives, we can’t help but agree with GAO’s findings that the scores produced by the program don’t represent an accurate or precise assessment of the safety of many carriers.”

The association’s conclusion is that FMCSA should remove carriers’ CSA safety scores from public view.

“Since scores are so often unreliable, third parties are prone to making erroneous judgments based on inaccurate data, an inequity that can only be solved in the near term by removing the scores from public view,” said Dave Osiecki, ATA executive vice president and chief of national advocacy.

GAO did not look at that question, however.

“Due to ongoing litigation related to CSA and the publication of SMS scores, we did not assess the potential effects or tradeoffs resulting from the display or any public use of these scores,” GAO said in its report.

SMS Shortcomings

GAO said the safety agency faces two challenges in assessing safety risk with CSA.

First, the regulations the agency uses to calculate safety scores are not violated often enough to strongly associate them with crash risk for individual carriers.

And second, there is not enough data to reliably compare most carriers’ performance with their peers.

“Most carriers operate few vehicles and are inspected infrequently, providing insufficient information to produce reliable SMS scores,” GAO said.

One result is that FMCSA has identified many carriers as high risk that have not been involved in a crash, which may cause the agency to miss opportunities to intervene with carriers that were involved in crashes.

GAO’s proposed solution is for the safety agency to score only the carriers that have more information. GAO noted, however, that this approach comes with a trade-off. Fewer carriers would have SMS scores, but those scores would be more reliable predictors of risk.

In revising its SMS methodology, the agency should identify the limitations caused by the quantity of data and by variability in the carrier population, GAO said. It also should identify limitations in the precision and reliability of the data.

GAO noted that the safety agency is preparing a rule for determining safety fitness using a carrier’s safety data. The agency should consider the limitations in that data while it drafts that rule, GAO said.

FMCSA had “significant and substantive disagreements” with GAO during the drafting of the report, which led to a rewrite in which GAO made it clear it is recommending that the agency do a formal analysis of its SMS methodology rather than prescribing changes.

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