Byline: Oliver B. Patton, Washington Editor

Federal safety data indicate that carrier registrations have jumped by 7.5% over the past 14 months, possibly reflecting a move by drivers to go into business for themselves, according to an analysis by QualifiedCarriers, a risk management services provider to shippers.


The number of active, for-hire carriers counted in the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration's CSA database jumped from 155,240 in February 2011 to 166,810 in April 2012, the company said.


Jeff Tucker, CEO of QualifiedCarriers and of Tucker Company Worldwide, a transportation broker, said he believes the new registrants are mainly independents who sought shelter as company drivers during the recession and now are getting back into business for themselves.


He does not believe that the number shows carriers that are attempting to shed their identities or CSA scores by reincarnating themselves under a new identity.


"This is a net increase in the number of carriers," Tucker said.


At the same time, it represents a decrease in the number of drivers available to carriers at a time of growing concern about a driver shortage, although the industry's overall freight capacity remains roughly the same.


More "Satisfactory"


The QualifiedCarriers analysis also shows sizeable percentage changes in the number of carriers rated as satisfactory, conditional and unsatisfactory under the agency's CSA system.


The number of satisfactory carriers dropped 2.4% from 31,404 to 30,665. Conditional ratings, on the other hand, jumped 22.8% from 5,070 to 6,226. And unsatisfactory ratings dropped 20.5% from 78 to 62.


Tucker said the agency has confirmed to him that this movement reflects the usefulness of CSA data as a way to focus enforcement attention where it needs to be.


Shippers and Brokers


That benefit does not extend to shipper and broker use of CSA data, however, Tucker said.


For one thing, the agency has for the time being backed off of its plan to include crash accountability in its data. For another, he said, the CSA data is a building block of a system not fully in place. FMCSA still has a way to go to complete work on the safety fitness rule that will establish the core of the program.


"There is tremendous confusion (among shippers and brokers) around what people should and should not be doing with individual CSA BASIC scores," he said. 


(Behavior Analysis and Safety Improvement Category scores are the seven factors that the agency uses to grade carrier performance.)


The CSA system is not yet robust enough for shippers and brokers to use its data to select carriers, Tucker said.


"Individual BASICs scores are really a dubious thing in my opinion," he said.


He cited the relatively high percentage of carriers, among those with a visible score, that have a fatigued driving alert.


Of the 55,735 carriers with at least one visible BASIC score in April 2012, 18,926 have a fatigued driving alert, which generally derives from an hours of service violation.


"That's a sizeable percentage," Tucker said. "What are you supposed to do with that, turn off nearly 40% of the carriers in the country, based on that one score?"


Hours of service violations range from overt violations of driving limits, which can lead to a driver being placed out of service, to "form and function" violations of logbook entries. 


Research Disagrees


Tucker also cited an analysis of CSA produced last November by Wells Fargo Securities.


The Wells Fargo analysts, Anthony Gallo and Michael Busche, said it is not clear that CSA scores reflect either the carrier's risk or the likelihood of an accident.


"According to our analysis of the 200 largest carriers in the CSA database, we find no meaningful statistical relationship between actual accident frequency and BASIC scores for Unsafe Driving, Fatigued Driving or Driver Fitness," they said in their report.


The agency responded in March with a counter analysis by the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute and the Volpe National Transportation Systems Center.


"FMCSA strongly disagrees with the findings of the Wells Fargo report," the agency said. 


Its research covered a much larger scope than Wells Fargo's: 29,000 carriers for the Unsafe Driving and 42,000 carriers for the Fatigued Driving BASICs. The analysis shows significant statistical relationships between these BASICs and crash risk, the agency said.


Tucker maintains that shippers and brokers need to be careful in their use of CSA data to evaluate carriers.


"It's important for industry to be patient and wait for the (pending) safety fitness (rule)," he said. 


"Don't jump to conclusions. Let's help FMCSA when we see things that might be improved in the process so that in the end this is a good process. I think we're far away from this being relevant in decision making around safety for the average shipper or broker."