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Does the commercial vehicle Safety Measurement System need improvement?

By Rohan L. Lewis  |  October 10, 2017

Commercial auto safety

Commercial auto insurers regard the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s (FMCSA) Safety Measurement System (SMS) as a valuable tool for identifying commercial motor vehicle carriers at high risk for future crashes. It’s well known that the SMS is conceptually sound, but a new, congressionally mandated report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NAS) recommends improvements.

Large market for insurers

Commercial motor vehicle (CMV) carriers are responsible for moving freight and passengers across the nation’s highways. CMVs are a large market for commercial auto insurers, and the risks inherent in this activity are evident: FMCSA data shows more than 100,000 crashes annually involving large trucks and buses resulting in an injury or fatality. Specially trained inspectors, usually state police and law enforcement officers, conduct approximately 3.5 million CMV roadside inspections each year to address about 900 potential safety regulation violations, a strong effort to minimize the amount of injuries and fatalities each year.

The 900 violations fall under six basic categories: unsafe driving, hours-of-service compliance, vehicle maintenance, controlled substances and alcohol use, hazardous materials compliance, and driver fitness. The SMS uses the information to identify motor vehicle carriers that operate unsafely and are at a higher risk for future crashes. Since the FMCSA acts to prevent rather than predict crashes, those carriers with frequent violations are encouraged to adopt operating measures that will lower the likelihood of future crashes.

Criticisms highlighted

Although the NAS report found the SMS was “structured in a reasonable way,” the report highlighted several specific criticisms of the SMS process, especially the fact that not all of the six basic categories are predictive. The report made a number of recommendations that the FMCSA should implement over the next two years, including the development of a more natural statistical model and improving the way it currently collects data. That requires the FMCSA to continue its collaboration with states and other agencies to improve the collection of data on crashes (regardless of fault) and vehicle miles traveled. The report found that such data is often missing or of unsatisfactory quality. Data on vehicle miles traveled by state and month helps the SMS account for varied environments in which carriers travel, such as icy winter weather in northern states. The data also lacks some information available in police narratives that could help insurers understand the contributing factors in a crash.

The report also recommended FMCSA research ways of collecting data on carrier characteristics, including driver turnover rates, cargo type, and method and level of compensation. For example, compensation levels are not currently collected, but they’re relevant because better compensated drivers and drivers not compensated based on miles traveled have fewer crashes.

Hazardous materials shipments

The SMS is unique because it compares similar interstate and intrastate motor carriers for regulated hazardous materials shipments. While insurers don’t have access to the Hazardous Materials (HM) Compliance BASIC, a motor carrier could provide the latest information (updated monthly by FMCSA) for evaluation.

The full NAS report is available for free here. Verisk’s Engineering and Safety Service (E&S™) works with our commercial auto team to keep customers informed about these and many other issues related to loss control. For information on Verisk’s Commercial Auto Solutions, visit our website.

Rohan L. Lewis is a product manager for Verisk-Commercial Lines Underwriting. You can contact Rohan at