CSA 20-something

by Passenger Service: State troopers ride-along with truckers in crash study

If you haul south of the 49th and don’t really know how you fit into the CSA 2010 puzzle, you could be in for a very rude awakening in the coming months.

The consensus among the experts tracking the rollout of the daunting new safety compliance program (it officially replaces the old SafeStat module on Dec. 1) is that a large majority of carriers still have no idea how they rank under CSA with just days to go; and many unknowingly rate below par as defined by the new rules.

Reportedly, out of half-a-million registered DOT carriers, about only 15,000 carriers have logged into the CSA website (www.csa2010.fmcsa.dot.gov) to review their performance status, although it’s true that a large slice of those active carriers are likely too small to come into enough contact with enforcement to register in the CSA database.

Still, according to RAIR, a carrier safety risk management firm in the U.S., roughly one in five carriers right now is at risk of an "intervention" by truck en­force­ment agencies.

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) will begin sending out warning letters next month to anyone who exceeds a given threshold in one or more of the seven so-called BASICs (unsafe driving, hours-of-service, driver fitness; drugs & alcohol; vehicle maintenance; cargo securement; and crash indication). And, by the way, your current violation records — out-of-service or not — are already feeding the CSA database.

"There are a lot of smaller carriers that are still struggling for survival. This is the last thing on their mind. They’re focusing their energy on keeping the doors open and the trucks moving," says Annette Sandberg, the former FMCSA administrator who’s now CEO of TransSafe Consulting, in an interview with Today’s Trucking.

"Unfortunately, many have flown under the radar [under SafeStat] and haven’t really clued in that they’re now the target."

Consider it, then, baptism by fire — or in this case, baptism by bad tires.

It’s hard to believe how many carriers weren’t even fully aware of SafeStat, much less being on top of this more unwieldy, all-encompassing system. 

"There’s a large segment of the industry that waits for a reason to do something and when they get that warning letter is when they’re going to look," says Thomas Bray, transportation editor for J.J. Keller.

"The problem is that even if you put the fixes in right now, it’s going to take three months for the system to see any improvements, assuming there are improvements."

So, what’s the big deal? You’ve scored pretty good under SafeStat, so you’re probably kosher with CSA too, right? Actually, not so right. In fact, a carrier can look completely different under one system when compared from the other.

SafeStat ratings are determined by adding up the average score from four very broad Safety Evaluation Areas (SEAs), made up mostly of compliance data based on out-of-service orders (OOS). This allowed carriers to stay legal even while racking up various violations.

CSA, instead, brings at least two "earth shattering changes," explains Bray. It considers pretty much all safety violations recorded at roadside inspections (about 3,500 in all, ranging from bad brakes to missing mudflaps) and weighs them individually by severity in a far more surgical enforcement analysis.

"The SEAs under SafeStat were so broad that if you had an issue with one of them it could be hidden," he says. "Now that each BASIC has to stand on its own, if you’re having trouble in just one area, like HOS, that’s going to stand out and you’re going to come to the attention of the agency."

Plus, the violations are generally treated much harsher.

"Before, say for an underinflated tire, it would have to be flat and ready to fall off before you were put out-of-service and have it affect your SafeStat score. Now that’s going to count."


Having already been delayed several times to this point, some in the industry have somewhat mockingly begun referring to it as CSA 2011, or even ’12. (It’s a good bet that’s why FMCSA dropped the calendar tag altogether and renamed it simply CSA.)

You’ll find few who still suspect an 11th-hour delay is possible, but some skepticism persists whether each state’s enforcement agencies will have staff fully trained on highway inspections, reviews, off- and on-site investigations, and interventions by the summer of 2011, which is the target for full-scale, nation-wide enforcement.

Also coming along sometime next year is a separate safety fitness determination rulemaking that would bypass the current compliance review process and automatically assign carriers their official designation (satisfactory, conditional, etc.) based on their active CSA scores.

FMCA, meanwhile, has spent much of this year trying to address myriad carrier concerns. They’ve done that for the most part, but some cracks still persist.

The most dramatic change is how FMCSA calculates exposure to potential safety problems in the unsafe driving and crash indicator BASICs. Larger carriers complained that they were unfairly bracketed to regional carriers that travel far fewer miles, so the agency will now include vehicle miles traveled (VMT) on top of number of power units in its measurement.

Terms like ‘deficient’ to describe carriers
that miss some BASIC benchmarks
unnecessarily exposed carriers to liability.

After the change, carriers’ scores in certain BASICs immediately swayed, wildly in some cases. The smallest fleets’ (one to five trucks) risk for an intervention jumped by half (from 10 percent to 15 percent) while the risk for the largest fleet peer group (501-plus) fell from 72 percent to 42 percent, according to RAIR, which reviewed the status of over 60,000 carriers for the report.

Even a five-percent increase is significant considering that the top risk BASICs under CSA are fatigued driving, unsafe driving, and vehicle maintenance — think logs, lanes, and lights — all areas that smaller carriers with less capital have particular problems with.

Other changes include switching the measurement criteria from number of units to the amount of relevant inspections in the controlled substances (drugs and alcohol) BASIC; and placing more individual emphasis on size and weight violations.

<< In recent days, FMCSA has made even more changes, including replacing the term "deficient" with "alert" to tag carriers with below standard BASIC scores. Click here and see sidebar, Hours of Suing, for the latest >>

Although quite operational, the system is still far from perfect. Perhaps the biggest outstanding concern deals with the lack of uniformity among state enforcers.

"There are still issues with how differently states train their officers, and even the [varying] quality of the officers," says Sandberg, herself a former inspector.

How data is collected and processed is also not close to being even across all jurisdictions. Accidents, for example, are far less likely to be reported to the FMCSA in certain states (some reporting rates are as low as 30 percent), creating competitive disadvantages based on geography.

Clarifying non at-fault accidents have always been an issue, but never more so than under CSA since each incident is noted.

As many truckers have pointed out, CSA doesn’t make annotations of accidents that are not the fault of the truck driver. The American Trucking Associations (ATA), which argues that it’s imperative that carriers be accountable for only the accidents they cause, wants the measurement system to remove crashes involving documented suicides; another vehicle operating in the wrong direction; and a vehicle rear-ending a truck while legally stopped.

FMCSA has stated it will look into the matter, but determining crash accountability (or remedying other reportable mistakes, for that matter) will likely prove difficult in many regions.

A carrier’s ability to correct data depends on the quality of records and the efficiency of the jurisdiction the original report was produced in, since FMCSA will not make changes to the data but will appeal to the agency that issued the violation. And truckers know, as Sandberg confirms, "there are things that once a roadside officer writes it down, there are few ways to contest it."


Improving scores will require a salvo of new approaches for many carriers, especially as it pertains to the fatigue and vehicle management BASICs. To effectively comply with both, automation will have to be more seriously considered by fleets, namely small outfits.

As Sandberg notes, vehicle maintenance is one of the toughest areas to track and will require stricter controls on DVIRs. PM cycles and annual inspections. "Many drivers consider DVIRs a nuisance and just pencil whip [through] it," she says. "There’s so many pieces to maintenance that many companies do not have adequate controls to monitor pre- and post-trip inspections.

"It shouldn’t be a paper exercise anymore."

There’s plenty of indication that an electronic on-board recorder (EOBRs) rule is imminent, but CSA will likely accelerate purchases well in advance of the final rule.

In fact, some people think only the most diligent of carriers and drivers will be able keep clean under CSA’s hours-of-service standards without EOBRs.

"Especially general things like form and manner, false logs and [discrepancies] like when the officer can’t read or understand the records — all those things go away [with EOBRs]," says Bray. "So fleets that have issues in those areas will be suddenly interested in EOBRs because of the auditing strength to catch mistakes and correct them."

Above all, though — because there’s so much emphasis on roadside events — it’s your drivers that hold the fate of your CSA report card. The rules, not surprisingly, don’t spell out how to train your drivers.

All that’s clear is the overwhelming number of rules and guidelines they must follow now that the so-called "just-don’t-get-caught" days of SafeStat are over.

"It will be tough for many carriers to maintain compliance without some level of additional training for drivers and staff," says Bray. "If you don’t do specific training, especially in problem areas, you don’t have a prayer when it comes to CSA."

And begging for forgiveness won’t help.


Hours of Suing

It’ll make carriers safer, yes, but CSA could also act as a personal ATM for some opportunistic attorneys. And it’s not just carriers taking note.

Shippers getting sued for hiring carriers who get into wrecks is not uncommon in the U.S., but now CSA exposes shippers to greater depths of liability.

Even in less-litigious Canada, where it’s harder to prove shipper negligence, CSA could be just the tool plaintiffs’ attorneys need to unwind claims all the way up the supply chain.

That CSA scores are so detailed with carrier deficiencies, and will eventually be easily accessible to the public, makes it harder for shippers to distance themselves from unsafe operators.

Carriers are so concerned that they put pressure on FMCSA to replace the term "deficient" with "alert" to identify carriers who fail a BASIC and insert on its website pop-up disclaimer language alerting users to the intent of the scores, and cautioning against misuse.

The agency also agreed that the Cargo-Related BASIC and the Crash Indicator will be kept private until further notice.

Still, shippers have reason to be concerned if "creative" lawyers are successful in linking them to a contacted carrier who gets into a wreck with sub-par BASIC score on the record.

"Shippers and brokers were being sued under the old SafeStat scores, so imagine what it’s going to be like now with these seven very [detailed] areas," says Annette Sandberg, former director of FMCSA-turned safety consultant. "If you’re going to pick a carrier with even one deficient score, you need to be able to articulate to a jury what you did to vet them appropriately.

"But to completely ignore those scores altogether is definitely not advised."

Sandberg says one of her shipper clients has already determined internally that it will not use a single carrier that’s over any of the thresholds. "So I asked, ‘you’re going to look at it monthly and drop carriers?’" she recalls. "They said they don’t know how many it’ll be right now, but that’s the decision even if they have to change it when they find out."

If that shipper sticks to its guns and more like-minded companies follow suit, a carrier with a good CSA rating will have an overwhelming marketing advantage. Several others won’t be so happy, however.

"There are," says Sandberg, "a very high number of carriers with at least one [deficient] BASIC."

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