How do you track the invisible?

May 5, 2014 | Articles

by Avery Vise in Down the Road

On New Year’s Eve, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration announced that it had shut down two affiliated South Carolina trucking operations and the owner-driver of one of them as “imminent hazards to public safety.” The agency’s actions certainly seem appropriate. The owner-driver of one company was involved in a fatal crash on Nov. 27 while driving without a commercial driver’s license. And it appears that the other company, for which this driver was operating at the time, employed three drivers that weren’t qualified. And it only had four drivers total.

Sure, it’s good that FMCSA took these carriers off the road, but a closer look at the situation reveals something troubling. If you look up the companies involved – CER Trucking (USDOT No. 196777) and Edward Risher Trucking (USDOT No. 685781) – in FMCSA’s Safety Measurement System, you will find that one company has no “golden triangles” while the other has just one for the Controlled Substances and Alcohol BASIC.

Based on the SMS data alone, these carriers don’t look that bad. Consider that a carrier could easily cross the intervention threshold based solely on one inspection that indicated possession – not necessarily even use – of drugs or alcohol. What the SMS profiles of CER Trucking and Edward Risher Trucking really highlight, however, is how blind the SMS and FMCSA’s Compliance, Safety, Accountability program are to very small trucking operations.
Aside from the alert on controlled substances and alcohol, there was insufficient data in the SMS to give CER Trucking a score in the other four public BASICs; it had undergone only five total inspections in the past 24 months. Edward Risher Trucking was a blank slate with no inspections at all.
A snapshot of CER Trucking’s SMS page indicating the current operating status of the carrier.

The lack of data is hardly surprising considering that between them CER Trucking and Edward Risher Trucking operated just three trucks. Perhaps as individual operations, carriers of this scope aren’t a high priority. As a group, however, they are a huge player in trucking and highway safety. In the latest census uploaded on the SMS website, 772,045 motor carriers had just one or two trucks – about 74% of all carriers in the database. So FMCSA needs an effective way to oversee these small operations, and CSA just doesn’t get the job done.

In theory, FMCSA could identify weak and downright bad small operations if it had more inspection data, but the trend is in the wrong direction. The total number of inspections fell about 6% from 2009 to 2012. Although roadside inspections were about flat, traffic enforcement inspections plummeted by about 34%.

To a lesser extent, the record and fate of CER Trucking highlight another issue: FMCSA’s failure to act proactively. The inspection that led to CER’s golden triangle in controlled substances and alcohol stemmed from a Feb. 12, 2013, report in which a driver was using or was in possession of drugs. That violation showed up almost immediately in FMCSA’s database, and the carrier has been above the intervention threshold since the February 2013 data run. And based on an inspection conducted in late September – also reflected immediately in the federal database – it was clear that at least one of CER Trucking’s drivers was operating with a suspended CDL.
CSA BASIC Snapshot
A snapshot of Edward Risher Trucking’s SMS page indicating the current operating status of the carrier.

The CER Trucking situation arguably underscores the National Transportation Safety Board’s recent criticism of FMCSA’s safety oversight. “While FMCSA deserves recognition for putting bad operators out of business, they need to crack down before crashes occur, not just after high-visibility events,” said NTSB Chairman Deborah Hersman in calling for audits.

Perhaps it’s unfair to cite CER Trucking as an example of FMCSA’s failure to be proactive. Certainly you would not expect FMCSA to prioritize a two-truck operation for scrutiny. But if that’s the case, then FMCSA should not get much credit for shutting down CER Trucking either.

Ultimately, FMCSA and its state partners can improve safety only by devoting more resources to safety oversight, and that costs money they don’t have. It’s not even clear that they are spending the money they do have wisely. Putting aside legitimate gripes over SMS methodology, this sad reality seriously undermines CSA’s integrity, especially considering that CSA data is public and not just an internal enforcement tool.

Perhaps one day technology and automation – universal electronic logs and wireless roadside inspections, for example – will substitute for “boots on the ground.” For now, however, we must accept that motor carrier safety oversight is inherently flawed because it can’t target the very operations that need it most.

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