Trucker to Congress: CSA ‘oppressive and punitive’ to ‘little guys’

The enforcement program used by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration is flawed to the point that it has “wide-reaching implications … especially for small carriers.”

That’s the message that owner-operator Daniel Miranda, an OOIDA member from California, delivered Wednesday to the House Committee on Small Business during the committee’s hearing on CSA.

Rep. Allen West, R-FL, read an opening statement on behalf of Chairman Sam Graves, R-MO. In those opening remarks he acknowledged that while overall highway fatalities are down, especially in the trucking industry, there is always room for improvement. That was supposed to be the job of CSA, he explained.

“Unfortunately, since implementation of this program began in 2010, a number of industry stakeholders and third-party researchers have identified what they believe are serious flaws in the (CSA) Safety Management System methodologies,” West said on behalf of Graves.

“These flaws call into question not only the ability of the CSA to achieve its primary goal – to identify unsafe actors that cause highway accidents – but also whether, in too many instances, the new system is identifying safe operators as unsafe.”

Those flaws were highlighted during testimony given by Miranda.

Miranda owns his own trucking company and employs two drivers. Last year, one of his drivers had a pair of inspections with violations that were scored under the Fatigued Driving BASIC – a category that scores compliance with the hours-of-service regulations.

“Last May, one of my drivers had a series of logbook violations around how he was characterizing his time, plus a minor violation regarding reflective tape on his trailer,” Miranda told the committee. “Regardless of the merits of these violations, I took remedial action with this driver, requiring him to attend additional training on HOS rules and how to correctly record duty status.”

Miranda said he attempted to have the violations removed from his company CSA profile through the DataQ process, FMCSA’s process for challenging inspection and crash data on a motor carrier’s records. Those challenges were denied.

“I also reached out to FMCSA and asked them what I could do to improve my score under CSA. They told me that I needed to obtain more “clean” inspections, so I did that, showing that we are a compliant company and that we fixed whatever problems may have existed before,” Miranda told the committee.

Miranda said his drivers proceeded to accumulate seven “clean” inspections over the course of the next several months. However, those inspections did nothing to improve his poor – high percentile – rating in the Fatigued Driving BASIC.

“This is a terrible message to send to a small-business owner, that the survival of their business is beholden to a computer system that is clearly out of touch with reality,” Miranda said.

Miranda went on to detail numerous other aspects of the CSA program that are flawed, forcing the program to fall short of its “well-intentioned” objective of reducing crashes.

He pointed out violations such as form and manner violations that result in an instance where a driver fails to sign his logbook.

“A driver who is cited for failing to sign his daily vehicle inspection report, something totally unrelated to fatigue or safety, is assigned a severity weight of 4, only slightly lower than the violation for an improper lane change while driving, something that is a clear safety issue,” Miranda said.

Miranda also criticized the fact that there is no crash fault indicator under CSA, meaning that one truck-involved accident looks like any other.

“What does this mean in real life? A fellow small-business trucker was hit by multiple vehicles as part of a large accident. Despite the fact that the trucker stopped his truck and did not hit anyone, under CSA the seven fatalities and 26 injuries are still listed in his record, with no notation about what happened,” Miranda told the committee.

“How does a system like that help law enforcement focus on safety and how can a trucker view it as anything more than a tool to punish them?”

Miranda wasn’t the only witness with sharp criticism of the CSA program.

Dr. Michael H. Belzer, associate professor for the Department of Economics at Wayne State University, testified that the program is falling well-short of its goal of taking unsafe motor carriers and bus companies off of the road.

He began his testimony recounting a bus crash that happened on June 1, 2011. The bus carrying 59 people in New York’s Chinatown district crashed, killing four people and injuring more than 50 others.

“The carrier had a long history of violations and crashes and a safety rating far worse than the rest of the intercity bus industry,” Belzer told the committee. “Sky Express should not have been on the road and after the crash the FMCSA gave it an unsatisfactory rating and banned it from interstate service.

“Though the ban was too late for the victims.”

Belzer told committee members that preventable crashes like this will happen again for the same reasons, “regardless of how many times we rework the algorithms of CSA or scrap it and replace the entire program altogether.”

The professor, known for his book “Sweatshop on Wheels,” which details the working conditions and stresses that truckers face, told the committee that CSA tries to address safety problems “we cannot remedy until we begin to address trucking’s systemic problems.”