Federal Regulators Need to Improve System for Identifying At-Risk Motor Carriers, Report RevealsJanuary 2, 2018
The Safety Management System (SMS) is used by regulators at the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) to identify motor carriers with a high risk of future crashes.1 The intention is to pinpoint potentially unsafe motor carriers and help FMCSA officials take action to intervene and prevent those carriers from being involved in accidents.
Looking to evaluate the efficacy of the SMS, in 2015, Congress ordered a study of the system’s methodology. Independent researchers at the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine (NASEM) conducted this study and published their important findings in June 2017.2
These findings uncover “several features of [SMS] implementation [that] need improvement.”
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Background: How the FMCSA’s SMS Works
Each year in the U.S., specially trained inspectors conduct about 3.5 million roadside inspections on commercial trucks. These inspections uncover about 900 potential violations of federal trucking regulations, which can fall into any of the following categories:
- Failures to comply with hours-of-service (HOS) rules
- Noncompliance with hazardous materials regulations
- Vehicle maintenance failures
- Unsafe driving
- Driver impairment (via alcohol and/or use of controlled substances)
- Driver unfitness.
This information is then analyzed and used by regulators to determine which motor carriers may be operating unsafely and, consequently, which should be targeted for FMCSA interventions, like warning letters or further inspections.
NASEM Report Reveals Problems with the FMCSA’s SMS
After evaluating the data collection, analysis and reporting methods of the SMS, researchers at the NASEM noted that, although the SMS is “conceptually sound,” it is plagued with “a number of data quality issues.” This includes (but is not necessarily limited to) missing or unsatisfactory data related to:
- Vehicle miles traveled (VMT) by state and month – This data could shed light on how VMT by carriers vary by environment, particularly in regions that experience adverse winter weather.
- Carrier characteristics – Specific data regarding carriers’ cargo, driver turnover rates and driver compensation could provide more insight regarding how these factors contribute to higher or lower crash risks.
- Factors contributing to crashes, as detailed in police reports – This could present information that is “not represented in the data” collected via roadside inspections. Consequently, it could provide for a more comprehensive picture of the factors that commonly play a role in causing truck wrecks.
The Report’s Recommendations
To overcome the issues currently impacting the SMS, researchers recommended that, over the next 2 years, the FMCSA “develop a more statistically principled approach” that is “based on an item response theory (IRT) model.”
The IRT model is a data analysis paradigm that is driven by a set of “items,” which can be scaled and rated to evaluate some construct (like motor carrier safety). IRT models have reportedly been successful in rating hospital safety.
Should an IRT model prove successful in determining motor carriers that need interventions – and in preventing accidents, the NASEM recommends that this model replace the current SMS.
Commenting on the NASEM’s findings and recommendations, the FMSCA Director of the Office of Compliance and Enforcement, Joe DeLorenzo, has explained that:
What the National Academy said was, ‘FMCSA, the model that you have is pretty good. However, what we would like to see [is] a better statistical model behind SMS’… The focus is on prevention of crashes, not prediction… The good news is that if we apply this model the way the national academy outlined it, it will give us good data and a good understanding of what is happening.
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1: FMCSA’s SMS Home page
2: NASEM’s Press Release regarding its SMS Report & Findings