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  • Henry Seaton

FMCSA seeks comment on SMS study, schedules September 8 meeting

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration is requesting comment by September 27 on the recent National Academy of Sciences (NAS) report on the Safety Measurement System (SMS) and has scheduled a September 8 public meeting to discuss NAS recommendations and solicit input. The agency is allowing attendance at the meeting either in person or by webinar.

In an August 28 Federal Register notice, FMCSA outlined “several high-level proposals” to address each of six specific NAS recommendations, but it noted that the proposals are not the “entirety of the action plan.” FMCSA also plans to establish a Standing Committee to oversee and advise related to the agency’s response to the study. The committee will advise the agency on Item Response Theory (IRT) modeling and establish a process for gathering stakeholder input in the implementation of the action plan.

FMCSA’s Federal Register notice implies that the agency’s focus will be to respond to the six formal recommendations, but the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act contemplates a broader and more comprehensive response. Section 5223 bars publication of SMS percentiles and alerts on property carriers until the Department of Transportation Office of Inspector General certifies that FMCSA’s corrective action plan addressed “any deficiencies identified” in the NAS report and has “fully implemented or satisfactorily addressed” issues raised by a February 2014 Government Accountability Office report (GAO 14-114). (In its Federal Register notice, FMCSA never uses the word “corrective,” as Congress did, and simply refers to is upcoming response as an “action plan.”)

Among the six recommendations are a couple that are of particular interest to small carriers. The fifth recommendation was that FMCSA conduct further study on how the operation of percentile ranking affects its suitability for public release. FMCSA responded:

Like NAS, FMCSA has been unable to quantify the impacts to motor carriers of publicly displaying the SMS percentiles. The Agency has only anecdotal information about the business impacts of the public percentiles on the SMS Web site. Historically, insurance companies and shippers have been reluctant to share data on how safety data is used to determine rates. And, while the Agency has been contacted by companies advising that they lost business because of SMS, these claims have not been validated or assimilated into a usable analysis.

FMCSA requested comments from carriers, insurers, and shippers regarding the impact of public display of SMS percentiles and alerts and said it would use the information “to identify next steps for this recommendation.”

The final recommendation revolves around the phenomenon often called “event group creep” – the situation that occurs when a carrier adds vehicles and receives additional clean inspections and thus incurs poorer SMS metrics simply by moving into a different safety event group. The NAS report recommended that FMCSA decide on the carriers that receive SMS alerts using both the SMS percentile ranks and the SMS measures. Also, percentile ranks should be computed both conditionally within safety event groups and over all motor carriers, the NAS panel recommended. FMCSA said very few carriers are affected by the phenomenon but agreed that SMS methodology should be revised “so that a safety event that is not a violation or crash is not the sole reason for an increased measure or percentile.” FMCSA also is considering the idea of a hybrid measure that combines relative and absolute metrics as part of IRT model development.

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