Thursday, December 15, 2011

What shippers need to know about CSA and SMS

by Scott Michaelis
Southern States Cooperative, Inc.
Richmond, VA

CSA (Compliance, Safety and Accountability) was developed by the FMCSA as a replacement to the Safe Stat system. It is intended to reduce accidents caused by commercial trucks using a method of roadside inspections and progressive intervention. Using data from these inspections, carriers are measured against their peers and assigned a percentile ranking, or SMS (Safety Measurement System) score, in each of 7 BASIC safety categories.

While everyone will agree that making our roads safer to travel is a good idea, the CSA system is fatally flawed. The data is incomplete and geographically biased. It grossly exaggerates the number and percentage of carriers that may have safety issues. Worst of all, according to a study by Wells Fargo, the SMS scores have no correlation with safety as measured by accidents per million miles.

The impact CSA will have on highway safety is questionable, but its impact on the transportation industry is all to clear:

  • Fewer drivers, fewer trucks, and less trucking capacity in an already tight market
  • Higher rates and less competition
  • Increased administration and liability for shippers


  • Of the 770,000 carriers subject to the FMCSA’s oversight, only 92,000 have a score on even one of the five BASICs released to the public. Only 12% of all carriers have a score in any BASIC.
  • Of the 92,000 carriers with a percentage score on at least one BASIC, 51,000 have at least one BASIC with a score over the intervention threshold (an “Alert”). How can shippers put any faith in a system that indicates 55% of all carriers may be unfit to be used? How will this affect your carrier base, capacity, bidding and rates?
  • 46 percent of the citations used to determine SMS scores are issued by 5 states where tickets or warnings must be issued to provide “probable cause” for inspecting the truck at all.
  • The Driver Fitness BASIC measures only 3.5 percent of the industry and most points are accumulated for drivers not having medical cards in their possession – not for actual disqualifying medical conditions
  • The “Fatigued Driving” BASIC measures only 16 percent of the regulated carriers.
  • “Vehicle Maintenance” measures only 19 percent of the industry. Over half the points accumulated are based on trailer lights, tire tread depth and brake adjustments with no proven correlation to safety.
  • The recently published Wells Fargo study shows that for the 200 largest carriers in the country there is no correlation between SMS scores and accidents per million miles or accidents per truck.

Now consider the issue of vicarious liability. The federal government is solely responsible in determining which trucking companies are allowed to operate on US highways. By making the SMS scores public, the FMCSA is attempting to have the shipping industry regulate carriers by black-balling those with “alerts” in BASIC categories that have no correlation to safety. This comes with a high cost to shippers. Because the SMS scores have been made public and are published by the federal government, shippers and brokers are faced with increased liability in carrier selection. Personal injury lawyers, in their search for the deepest pockets, will argue that if a shipper has access to this information, as flawed as we know it to be, they should be liable for accidents involving carriers who may not pose any greater risk than the trucking industry at large.

  • Shippers will need to purchase costly software or services to monitor and manage every carrier they use.
  • They will need to rewrite contracts with 3PLs and brokers to protect themselves against lawsuits involving carriers that are unknown to the shipper.
  • They may need to end long-term relationships with competent, safe, and competitively priced carriers.
  • They may do all of these things and still find themselves involved in costly lawsuits.

All this at what cost, and what gain? It bears repeating that, according to the Wells Fargo study, no coloration exists between SMS scores and accidents.

What can you do? Support ASECTT (Alliance for Safe Efficient and Competitive Truck Transportation) in our efforts to remove the SMS scores from the public arena. We support the effort of the FMCSA to use SMS scores to determine which carriers to monitor and when to intervene. However, this can be, and should be accomplished in a way which is not inherently unfair and anti-competitive.

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