Five years and counting since its rollout, the federal Compliance, Safety, Accountability safety-monitoring initiative continues to bedevil fleet managers.
In the abstract sense, CSA is a complicated structure. Its methodology seeks to bring various disparate facts together to draw an accurate — and actionable — picture of the moving target that is the nation’s motor carriers at work.
In 2010, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration began measuring safety performance by violations attributed to motor carriers and their drivers. The violations, generated mainly by roadside inspections and crash data, get sorted into seven Behavioral Analysis and Safety Improvement Categories (BASICs), and then the events are assigned a numerical weight based on severity and age. What results is what’s come to be known as a “CSA score,” tracked and displayed via the agency’s Safety Measurement System (SMS).
These scores are intended to distinguish carriers that operate safely from those that do not. But critics of FMCSA have long argued that many fleets are inaccurately portrayed as “unsafe” because the scoring process is more heavily weighted towards violations, regardless of the many clean safety inspections a fleet may have to its credit.
The upshot is fleets that are committed to operating as safely as they know how may end up looking less than safe when viewed through the lens of CSA.
A provision in the 2015 highway bill lobbied for by trucking did force FMCSA to remove CSA scores from public view, so fleets would not be penalized by shippers, brokers and insurers for the scoring system’s flaws while the agency works to reform the program.
It’s a temporary fix. The scores will stay down until the agency has commissioned a Transportation Research Board study of how accurately the FMCSA system identifies high-risk carriers and predicts future crash risk and severity. Within 18 months, the agency must submit a report on that study to Congress and, 120 days later, provide a “corrective action plan” to address any deficiencies determined by the study. Experts expect it will be two years at best before CSA is fully restored.
Nevertheless, the enforcement and inspection data (reported by states and enforcement agencies) that drives CSA analytics remains publicly visible. Fleets can still access their data, including percentile ranks and alerts. And law enforcement is also able to access scores and use them to prioritize enforcement actions.
Eyes of the law
So, just as before, the best way a fleet can make sure its safety profile reflects how safely its trucks operate in the eyes of the law is to bring down the type of violations (and their severity and frequency) that drive up CSA scores.
That brings us back to the basic roadmap to reaching a positive safety profile — CSA’s BASICs. Every carrier and driver is scored in each of those seven categories. A carrier’s score includes all violations for drivers operating under its authority for the previous two years, while a driver’s will show all violations incurred with any carrier for the previous two years.
The measurement of each BASIC is determined by the number of adverse safety events; the severity of the violations or crashes; and when the events occurred, with those more recent weighted more heavily.
“Enforcement people are still looking at CSA scores,” says Bob Laumann, safety compliance manager for Brigham City, Utah-based Smoot Brothers Transportation. “Our safety profile is still important to us and, in my opinion, when others can see that [CSA] data, it keeps pressure on carriers to stay on top of safety.”
A 28-year veteran with the Idaho State Police, with commercial-vehicle enforcement experience, Laumann joined Smoot Brothers shortly before CSA was rolled out and was charged with improving the fleet’s safety record by co-owners Mike, Matt and Kenny Smoot.
The brothers had launched the company with one truck in the late ’80s. Primarily a flatbed hauler of construction materials, the fleet now runs 60 trucks nationwide and has 14 owner-operators under lease.
Laumann says his “priority assignment” coming onboard was to identify safety and compliance issues and what actions to take. The two major areas of concern were equipment maintenance and hours-of-service compliance.
To bring down violations filed under the Vehicle Maintenance BASIC, he stressed completing and documenting annual inspections of trucks and trailers, which are maintained in house. In addition, more technicians were hired to handle PM inspections, and techs began training drivers on how to conduct proper pre- and post-trip inspections to identify safety issues.
HOS violations were tackled at first with a computer-assisted program that helped track logbook compliance. Laumann also set up an incentive program that rewarded drivers for violation-free DOT equipment inspections and compliant logs. “I also worked with dispatch to be aware of how they can help avoid drivers running out of hours.”
Despite getting positive results from all those efforts, Laumann says, “a year ago, our drivers were still on paper logs, which meant we were still dealing with the cumbersome process of monitoring those even before we could address any hours-of-service issues. That’s why we decided to switch to electronic logging.”
Laumann says Smoot looked at several solutions and opted to start equipping its company trucks with the Zonar 2020 tablet. The device was loaded with the provider’s ZLogs HOS app and EVIR (Electronic Vehicle Inspection Reporting) system.
He says the setup enables drivers to easily track their hours and submit more timely and accurate reports. “It also lets them conduct consistent and verifiable vehicle inspections and submit inspection reports that are understandable, legible and complete.” What’s more, the secure telematics platform keeps drivers in constant contact with the fleet without distracting them with instructions from dispatchers or other company communications.
Laumann points out that “just about all the ELD solutions have information to help train dispatchers. They can see where all the drivers are and their remaining hours. So they can make much better decisions – and without pushing them too hard. That’s a real advantage. For the safety department, ELDs make monitoring for compliance easier and it helps us see where drivers need more training.”
He says that since moving to telematics, the fleet’s HOS-related safety score has dramatically improved. “In the first six months, it dropped from 90 to below the non-compliance threshold. In one year, it dropped all the way from 90 to 45.”
Smoot Brothers’ CSA score had been dinged by drivers who weren’t carefully tracking their hours as well as by missing or incomplete driver inspections. Laumann says the latter led to uncovering maintenance issues that weren’t being addressed.
The fleet has seen a dramatic drop in the average number of HOS and vehicle-inspection violations incurred by company drivers. Before the Zonar solution was put in service, it wasn’t uncommon for drivers to be issued several violations each month. Starting in the first six months, that number has dropped to nearly zero. “We anticipate seeing our score really start dropping as the point values for violations issued to drivers several months ago start to fall,” Laumann notes.
Ready in the shop
He says that drivers being able to relay pre- and post-trip inspection information right away means “our shop guys can be ready, and we’ve also made some changes in our maintenance practices based on what we’ve learned. It used to be that HOS violations, by far, were the hardest to control. But now we can focus on improving equipment maintenance as well to lower our [CSA] score.”
Hours of service and inspections aren’t the only places where technology can help improve safety scores.
Del Lisk, vice president of safety services for Lytx, provider of DriveCam video-based driver risk analysis, says fleets are “coming to us because they are becoming more focused on safety numbers, whether that’s driven by CSA, an insurance carrier or their board of directors.”
Safety-conscious carriers “see that what they are doing to be safer does improve their scores. But they’re not just trying to comply with regulations. They know that what looks good on paper does not necessarily add up to a highly effective safety program.”
He says the whole point behind an in-cab video system like DriveCam is the technology “moves fleets beyond monitoring drivers to affecting their behavior” to improve safety. “When something happens on the road that the driver has to react to, our system captures it on video. The clips are uploaded to us and we review them to determine if the drivers took the correct action. From there, the fleet customer can use our analysis to recognize a driver who was skillful or coach a driver who made a mistake.
“Tools like this,” Lisk adds, “let fleets capture habits or behaviors that can lead to collisions so drivers can be trained individually as needed. The training that results is customized to the driver – for what he needs it for and when he needs it — so it is more effective than generalized instruction.”
Certainly, technology can be an important tool to help improve your safety scores. Yet the majority of fleets have been slow to adopt such systems.
“Although telematics devices have been around for decades, the range for Class 8 tractors outfitted with telematics is approximately 27 to 40%. That speaks volumes about the perceived value of telematics,” says Jim Griffin, chief technology officer for Fort Lauderdale, Fla.-based Fleet Advantage, which provides equipment financing and lifecycle-cost management to large private fleets.
Resistance to telematics is understandable, given the dizzying array of solutions on the market. “Amid the overload of telematics applications, hardware and services available, deciding on the range of system functionality and associated costs can be overwhelming,” Griffin says.
But he contends the electronic logging device mandate that kicks in two years from now should bring more fleets off the telematics fence. “A short-sighted decision to simply meet the ELD mandate without understanding the ‘actionable data potential’ of telematics to greatly reduce operating costs is ill advised,” he says.
You’ll have to make the investment in ELDs to meet the mandate, he says, and the incremental costs to add on additional telematics features that help improve safety is minimal. And its return on investment is substantial.
“Thinking strategically about the data you need to manage your fleet’s performance, your driver’s behaviors and vehicle lifecycle options will ultimately pay off,” he says, not only in improved safety, but also in lower operating costs, higher fuel economy and better driver retention.