IT WAS mid January when a petroleum transport plunged off an overpass outside Baltimore, Maryland, and exploded in a fireball on I-95 below. Four people died, including the tanker driver, a man with at least 16 years experience hauling petroleum.
This was just the beginning of the tragedy. Local and national media jumped in immediately with misleading and misinformed reports that were more opinion than fact in some cases.
The most objectionable and inaccurate reporting involved use of questionable data from SafeStat, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration's (FMCSA's) truck safety and crash reporting system. The Washington Post, for instance, quoted an FMCSA official as saying that the petroleum transport in the accident belonged to a carrier that had an accident record “worse than 96.6% of the carriers that we visited.”
This accusation is unwarranted and unjustified because the carrier in question has a satisfactory safety rating, the highest of the SafeStat ratings. The parent company of the fleet in question received numerous safety awards during the past year, both from National Tank Truck Carriers and from industry. They have a good track record in safety.
Major problems lie with the SafeStat system itself. Cliff Harvison, NTTC president, pointed out in The Washington Post article that the statistics kept by federal regulators are notoriously unreliable and potentially misleading because they do not factor in blame when tallying the number of wrecks, among other issues.
SafeStat really is nothing more than a type of snapshot that FMCSA uses to identify carriers for further attention. No one, not even FMCSA, claims that the SafeStat information is totally accurate. Mistakes are made at the accident scene where data is collected, and many of the mistakes make it into the profiles.
SafeStat is a tool that works when the person using it understands the system. When used incorrectly by someone who is uninformed — or has an axe to grind — that tool can become a weapon that does serious harm to a carrier.
Federal officials acknowledge that SafeStat has some serious weaknesses. A recent Department of Transportation inspector general report called on FMCSA to correct the weaknesses by improving data quality and timeliness and revalidating the overall statistical model before information is disseminated to the public.
The inspector general's main complaint about SafeStat data is that crash and inspection details are not always reported to FMCSA for inclusion in the database. For example, six of 50 states and the District of Columbia did not report any crashes to FMCSA between July and December 2002.
The inspector general audit also found variations in underreporting across states for all crashes involving commercial vehicles and reporting problems specific to fatal crashes. Since SafeStat involves a relative ranking of one carrier against another, missing data may place a lower-risk fleet in a deficient category because data for a higher-risk trucking company is not included in the calculation.
A disclaimer recently was added to the SafeStat web site (Safersys.org). It advises people to exercise caution in using the data. Undoubtedly, this is in response to errors made by the media and others who don't understand the process.
All of this should serve as a wake-up call for the tank truck industry. Don't assume that the SafeStat reports are accurate or up to date. A recent review of one tank truck carrier profile showed that the same accident had been entered twice, and another carrier's accident also was listed in the profile.
Be proactive. Fleets should review SafeStat profiles every month. When errors or discrepancies are found, notify FMCSA or the state where the event occurred. FMCSA has a new web-based system for fleets to request correction of inaccurate SafeStat data. Through the new DataQs system, correction requests are automatically forwarded to the appropriate state office for resolution. Carrier representatives can also monitor the status of each data correction filing. Thirty-three states are participating in this system.
Follow up to make sure corrections are made. Contact the Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance to report SafeStat problems. Failure to keep up with SafeStat can be a costly mistake that compounds an already tragic event.