Trucker Safety Ratings Flawed, Companies Tell U.S. Panel

A safety-rating system developed by the U.S. Transportation Department unfairly tarnishes trucking and bus companies for crashes that may not be their fault, a House committee was told.

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s scores are hurting companies with good operating histories, lawmakers said, citing complaints they’ve received from trucking companies. Brokers, shippers and insurers are less likely to do business with companies with bad scores, even if they’re based on paperwork violations, they said.

“While the old adage of ‘garbage in, garbage out’ does not completely apply here, there are questions about the reliability and integrity of the data,” Representative Nick Rahall, a West Virginia Democrat, said at a hearing held by a House Transportation and Infrastructure subcommittee.

The Transportation Department has been developing its Compliance, Safety and Accountability system since 2004 to better target unsafe companies for inspection. The American Trucking Associations is asking the agency to revise what data is being included.

“FMCSA must acknowledge that the system does not accurately and reliably identify unsafe carriers,” said Scott Mugno, vice president of safety for FedEx Ground Package System Inc., who testified on behalf of the Arlington, Virginia-based trucking trade group.

The agency’s priority “should be to focus on the least safe carriers, not merely those carriers that have compliance problems,” he said.

Potential Lawsuits

A study by Wells Fargo Securities LLC found no correlation between a carrier’s scores and actual accidents. Wells Fargo told interested parties, like shippers, brokers and insurers, that FMCSA safety scores weren’t reliable, and that they were setting themselves up for potential lawsuits if they use the scores.

The Transportation Department needs to come up with a way for companies to challenge data they believe is inaccurate, and if so to get their rating changed, said Representative John Duncan, chairman of the Highways and Transit Subcommittee, which held the hearing.

“We want the bad companies acted on, but we don’t want the good companies treated like they’re bad,” said Duncan, a Tennessee Republican.

FMCSA’s data and ratings have been validated by the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute, agency Administrator Anne Ferro said. Carriers with the worst scores have crash rates twice often as the average company, Ferro said.

Task Force

The agency is sensitive to criticism that the program isn’t fair, Ferro said in an interview. The agency has set up an agency-industry task force to evaluate suggested changes, she said.

The program is working better than the agency’s earlier efforts to identify risky companies, which is important because inspectors can only look at a fraction of the more than 500,000 U.S. trucking companies, Ferro said.

“We have an obligation to use our data to really focus our resources on the high-risk carriers,” Ferro said.

The father of a college-aged son killed by a negligent truck driver cautioned lawmakers that determining fault in an accident isn’t always easy. Steve Owings, president and co-founder of Road Safe America, said the police report of his son Cullum’s 2002 crash initially indicated no fault based on the driver’s false account. Cullum was killed when a speeding truck hit his car from behind.

‘Tremendous Mischaracterization’

The report didn’t reflect what Owings’s surviving son, Pierce, witnessed because Pierce was in the ambulance with his brother as he died, Owings said. The family hired a private investigator to corroborate Pierce’s version of what happened, he said.

“It is a tremendous mischaracterization to say that this process is unfair and that some trucking companies are being blamed for crashes that they did not cause,” Owings told the committee. “With all companies being held to the same standard of inclusion, the playing field is level and fair.”

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