Since 2010, the FMCSA has used it’s Compliance, Safety, Accountability (CSA) system to prioritize federally-regulated motor carriers for enforcement action. The Safety Measurement System (SMS) is one major component of CSA, which ranks carriers against their peers in seven categories known as the BASICs.
A carrier’s SMS scores are primarily a function of the number, type, and severity of regulatory violations uncovered during roadside inspections and/or compliance reviews. Carriers that perform worse than a certain percentage (e.g., 65%) of their peers in the BASIC categories are placed higher on FMCSA’s prioritization list and are more likely to receive warning letters, fines, and compliance reviews. For this reason—and because poor SMS scores can also lead to increased insurance premiums and loss of business—it is imperative that carriers consistently monitor and work to improve their scores.
While there's no magic wand that can fix your scores overnight, what follows is a list of tried and true steps that are sure to improve your SMS scores over time.
1. Familiarize yourself with SMS and your data
First thing's first. You can't improve your scores if you don't know what they are or how they are calculated. If it's your first time viewing your scores, you'll need your USDOT number and the 8-character PIN that you were assigned when you originally requested that number. With those details, you can login to your account at https://ai.fmcsa.dot.gov/SMS/. There you'll find your carrier dashboard, complete with your registration details and your scores in each of the seven BASICs. You'll also see links to dive into each BASIC to see what specific violations are contributing to your current score. Violations from roadside inspections persist in the SMS system for 24 months, after which time they "fall off" and no longer impact your scores.
Sample Carrier Dashboard
2. Keep DOT registration details up to date
While not the case across the board, some of the BASIC scores are influenced by the carrier's registration details, and in particular, the number of power units and annual vehicle miles traveled (VMT). As your power unit count or VMT increases, it's important that you update your DOT registration (i.e., through an MCS-150 filing) to reflect that fact so that you get the benefit of those additional units or miles. As a general rule, violations spread across more units and more mileage should improve scores, even if only minimally.
3. Utilize the DataQs system
I'm often surprised how many carriers either do not know about or do not use the FMCSA's DataQs system. The system exists within the larger CSA/SMS programs and is the exclusive means by which carriers can contest erroneous information or violations that are placed on its SMS account. For example, if you have reason to believe that an officer incorrectly assessed a violation during a roadside inspection, you can file a DataQs appeal of that violation--providing any information/documentation in your possession that supports your case--and, if you are successful, have that violation removed from your scores. Likewise, you can use the system to challenge the preventability of certain types of accidents and potentially have them removed from your scores as well. The DataQs system is free and easy to use, and is available at https://dataqs.fmcsa.dot.gov.
4. Incentivize clean inspections
Changing driver behavior can be difficult, but it really is the key to improving SMS scores. Minimizing roadside violations is essential to good scores, and accomplishing this requires buy-in from your drivers. Ensuring your drivers are properly trained on all things DOT compliance is a no-brainer, but how do you ensure that training really sticks? Well, in my view, you've got a couple of options. I'll call them the "carrot and stick" approaches, and I'll start with the carrot. Research consistently demonstrates that positive reinforcement almost always prevails over negative reinforcement. One way that many carriers have chosen to positively reinforce safe and compliant behavior is to offer drivers incentives for "clean" inspections. This could take many forms such as cash bonuses, safe-driving awards, and company swag, just to name a few.
5. Dissuade bad inspections
As you would suspect, the "stick" approach is just the opposite of positive reinforcement: disincentivizing bad behavior/inspections through some form of punishment or repercussion. This, too, can take many forms, but might include things like progressive disciplinary polices, financial repercussions, termination, etc. In my experience, carriers that have implemented both the carrot and stick approaches fare the best when it comes to improving driver behavior and ultimately SMS scores.
I hope these simple tips will help you to better understand and eventually improve your SMS scores. If you are in need of more in-depth training or want even more tips and tricks for improving your safety program, be sure to check out our Trucksafe Academy, where we offer a variety of comprehensive online training courses.