Wednesday, February 12, 2014

The key to avoiding crashes? It’s lost in Big Data

Editor’s note:  OOIDA Executive Vice President Todd Spencer was a guest on the Dave Nemo Show on Sirius XM Road Dog Channel on Friday, Feb. 7. Here are some of Todd’s comments.

OOIDA Executive Vice President Todd Spencer
Big data … this term is now being used as if this is the wave of the future. Everyone is gathering it and everyone is analyzing it and everyone is making claims for the usefulness of it and the benefits of it. I think this is probably an example of where you torture numbers long enough they’ll confess to anything, but at the end of the day, does any of it mean much at all?

Truck fatalities and accidents were going down considerably, and now that Compliance, Safety, Accountability program and new hour of service are in effect, they are going up.

The bottom line is – maybe Big Data is looking at the wrong stuff. Maybe we should take a slightly different approach to addressing the issue. If all of these enforcement programs are about safety, well then, make the correlation between the regulations and the safety payback. Realistically that’s virtually never been done. In the few instances where they’ve tried to assess the cost benefit, you sift through what they’ve put together, but a lot of it looks sort of like b.s.

That’s kind of got us to where we are today. The regulatory machine basically is a machine. The enforcement community is a business … a big business. There are hundreds of millions of dollars at the federal level that are dedicated to nothing but policing trucks and truck drivers and more at the state level. The number of those regulations shows no sign of getting smaller.

What we see more and more today are economic interests. They have their own agenda and it’s economics as opposed to safety. Safety stuff is basically just marketing, and it gets us right back to the benefits of Big Data. Everybody’s gathering it. Everybody’s offering it. Everybody’s selling it, but is it really making any difference? 

Realistically, we think the recent report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office that takes issue with CSA is pretty clear evidence that we need to take a breath and start looking closer at what we’re doing to find out if any of this stuff really is relative.

The first thing they did was look at the Big Data to make the correlations and the frequencies of the crashes out of the 750-800 things that regulations of drivers are written up for. One of the first things they did was determine that while these things are written, the frequency at which they are written is so low that you couldn’t possibly conclude that this was any kind of a factor in crashes. So they threw out all but 40 or 41 and started drilling down on those.

In the end, the two biggest items they found with the most frequency were: one, speeding and, two, a driver not wearing a seat belt. To me, that’s a head scratcher. There’s no scenario in the world where I can picture that not wearing a seat belt is going to make you more likely to be involved in a crash. It’s a factor after you crash but not before.

To be clear, there really isn’t much correlation between the regulations being enforced, most of the tickets and write-ups that drivers are getting, and the likelihood of a crash.

Every lawmaker’s office has received phone calls about CSA and it is volume of calls that basically registers with lawmakers’ offices as something they need to look into. Certainly the GAO review was based on complaints to members of Congress about the CSA program. Congress directed the GAO to look at this program and do this assessment – and that was simply because drivers were calling and complaining.

And those complaint calls should continue, because they do have an effect. You can bet FMCSA is doing everything they can to justify what they’ve been doing. You need to keep in mind that most of what FMCSA does is what Congress tells them to do. They don’t have a choice about it. This is a program that grew out of what they called the Safety Management System and it predated it. It was supposed to identify those carriers that were so unsafe that they shouldn’t be in business. Well, they’ve never been able to identify those carriers that meet those criteria on any kind of reliable basis. CSA is an extension of that program, only it’s kind of an extension on steroids.

When you cut down through what it does – the GAO pointed this out and OOIDA has for a long time – it can’t accurately make a safety adequacy decision for small carriers simply because there are so few inspections, and violations tend to be regional and in some areas states write different things.

Frequency of inspection, for example. That is totally up to states and really the feds don’t have any control over it. They hope the states will do what they want them to do. States tend to do what they want to do. They pick their own priorities and that’s just kind of how it is. The data is never going to be very good, but one of things we are optimistic that will come out of this is that they will rethink the broader issue.

One of the things we mentioned over and over is why don’t you look at carriers that don’t crash and compare what they do with those carriers that do crash. Think about it differently. Rather than simply enforcing the same thing that we’ve enforced for years and years, that may or may not have ever had anything to do with safety or crashes, take a fresh approach.

As far as the frustration with CSA on Capitol Hill, the heat’s been turned up pretty well and realistically I think it’s going to get turned up even more. Not only was the GAO doing a review, but the DOT Inspector General’s office was, too. That was also directed by Congress.

We’re pretty confident the IG’s report is about two weeks from being released. I suspect it’s going to find many of the same criticisms of CSA as the GAO did. Hopefully we can get to the point of looking at these more closely and find out if they relate to safety and other real issues.

In looking through the GAO’s criticisms of the CSA program, one of the things that they point out is there has been a tremendous focus by this agency and others on the driver fitness BASIC. Companies that have higher scores, meaning worse scores, on the driver fitness stuff, actually crash less. I would think at some point, you would have to think “why?”

The why sort of seems like a no-brainer, if you are familiar with the industry. Those drivers that would draw more focus in the category of driver fitness are going to generally be those that are a little more seasoned, those that have been out there awhile, those that know what they are doing – and knowing what you’re doing is the key to avoiding crashes.  

What gets lost in all of this Big Data and dissecting the numbers and enforcement of regulations is – how many crashes every day are avoided by good drivers that know what they’re doing, that have the ability to basically assess a situation in front of them and make the right response to be nowhere close to the crash.

That’s the key to improving safety.