Officers of the Washington State Patrol work alongside the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) in the joint mission “to prevent crashes, injuries, and fatalities related to large trucks and buses on our roads.”[1]  One way to help sort and prioritize inspection and enforcement efforts is the Safety Measurement System (SMS).  This system is part of the program for Compliance, Safety, and Accountability.  As designed by FMCSA, the SMS “assesses compliance and prioritizes carriers for intervention based on their on-road performance and investigation results…(this) includes data collected from roadside inspections and crash reports; investigation results include violations discovered within the previous 12 months.”[2]

Carrier performance is examined under the Behavior Analysis and Safety Improvement Categories (BASICS):

  • Unsafe Driving
  • Crash Indicator
  • Hours-of-Service
  • Vehicle Maintenance
  • Controlled Substances/Alcohol
  • Hazardous Materials
  • Driver Fitness

When a rating is determined, think of the value like your score for a round of golf.  The lower the score, the better the company has performed on the metrics.  If you want to look up a company’s SMS rating, check your own, or learn more about the system, take a look at the official FMCSA SMS website.

So what does this SMS rating have to do with our WSP officers and their daily operations?  First, if carriers have a high rating we may not see them on the roadway at all.  Often shipping companies and insurance providers will not work with carriers who have high SMS ratings.  At the most extreme they may be under a federal or state Out of Service Order.  If a company is operating with an elevated SMS rating, they are likely to be screened into weigh stations for further inspections.  Officers who make contact for other violations or to conduct a random inspection will also be alerted to their SMS rating as part of their inspection procedure.  Depending on which categories above are triggering alerts, either the driver, the vehicle, or both may be subject to a heightened level of inspection to address those areas of deficiency. 

Carriers can improve their SMS ratings in a variety of ways.  They may challenge violations on inspections using a process known as a DataQ.  Their score will also improve if they have random inspections from officers that find no safety violations.  As time passes and vehicle miles safely traveled increase, the SMS rating will also adjust.

Sometimes when motor carriers reach a high SMS rating, they will attempt to abandon the USDOT number associated with that rating and use a different one.  This is another kind of violation called subterfuge and/or reincarnation.  When these carriers are detected, they can be placed out of service and become ineligible to register their vehicles, among other penalties.

As a fellow driver on the highways, you can have an impact on a carrier’s SMS rating.  If you see concerning driver behavior such as distracted driving, lane travel, and speeding, you can call the WSP and report it for an available officer to make contact.  FMCSA also collects safety complaint information for follow up here.  You can also look up the USDOT number on the side of the cab, enter it into the SAFER website, and find information to contact the carrier directly.  Often company safety officers want to hear if their company is being poorly represented by their drivers out on the road. 

This would raise a company’s SMS score.  (Photo courtesy Trooper R. Taylor)

[1] “Safety Measurement System (SMS) Methodology: Behavior Analysis and Safety Improvement Category (BASIC) Prioritization Status” FMCSA 2022. 

[2] Above, page 9.