Hundreds of tractor-trailer and bus companies which had been ordered to shut down because of federal safety violations ranging from suspended licenses to possible drug use have stayed on the road. They have done this by using different names. A study by the Government Accountability Office, obtained by The Associated Press, comes a year after an unlicensed charter bus carrying a Vietnamese-American Catholic group blew a retreaded tire installed on a steering axle and skidded off a Texas highway, killing 17 people in one of the nation’s deadliest bus crashes. The use of recapped tires on the steering axle is a violation of federal regulations.
The GAO report found that at least 20 of the roughly 220 commercial bus companies that had been fined and ordered out of service in 2007 and 2008 by federal regulators evaded compliance by operating under a new name. This had been done by the bus operator in the Texas crash.
The investigation by the GAO found offenders in at least nine states — Arizona, Arkansas, California, Georgia, Maryland, North Carolina, Texas, New York and Washington. It was reported that the violators owed tens of thousands of dollars in delinquent fines and a tremendous number of violations ranging from operating without the proper license to failing to test drivers for illegal drugs and alcohol.
It’s believed that another 1,073 commercial trucking firms are operating under new names after incurring fines and violations. Reportedly, they are often using the same address, owner name, employees and contact numbers – only the business name is different. In all, more than 500 of the tractor-trailer and bus companies were still operating as recently as July, according to investigators. Greg Kutz, GAO’s managing director for special investigations, wrote:
These companies pose a safety threat to the motoring public. We believe that these carriers reincarnated into new companies to evade fines and avoid performing the necessary corrective actions.
There were about 300 fatalities from bus crashes last year. Kutz warned that the number of violators is likely higher, since the GAO reviews only identified companies based on exact matches of information. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration says it has put in place new oversight measures after last August’s crash, including a computer-matching process to compare new applicants to poor-performing motor carriers dating back to 2003. Newly-licensed carriers also must undergo a safety audit within 18 months of approval, a step that helped the agency identify several of the rogue companies cited by the GAO. But, the GAO says the federal agency did not yet have full computer capability to identify companies that had used similar addresses and names but not necessarily exact matches of each other. There appears to be uncertainty as to what level of government has the proper enforcement power. Federal law also is somewhat ambiguous about whether FMCSA or the states have that authority.
The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, led by Rep. James Oberstar, D-Minn., is proposing a federal standard that would give the FMCSA more power to revoke licenses and impose fines. The measure also would direct FMCSA to improve its computer systems. The measures are included in a proposed six-year, $500 billion highway reauthorization bill that the Obama administration wants delayed for 18 months because of questions about cost.
In the Texas crash referred to above, Iguala BusMex Inc. of Houston had received a Transportation Department number and was awaiting approval for a federal license when one of its buses crashed near Sherman, Texas. The company was run by Angel de la Torre, who operated Angel Tours Inc., which was forced to take its vehicles out of interstate service just two months earlier after an unsatisfactory review by federal regulators. Other cases cited by GAO, without identifying the companies, were:
• Inspectors examined a bus operated by a Texas bus company in October 2006, fining it $850 after deeming the vehicle unsafe to drive. A few months later, the company was found illegally transporting 33 passengers from Mexico into the U.S. and was fined $2,380. That same month, a new company opened with two of the same drivers, three of the same vehicles, the same last name for the company owner and virtually identical addresses. The new firm operated for 18 months before it was cited for drug testing violations in September 2008; it was ordered out of service last month.
• An Arkansas motor carrier was cited for nine safety violations in May 2007, including failing to get the proper licenses and maintaining driver qualification files, and fined $3,050. A new company with the same business address, phone number and company officer name started in June 2007, three months before the old carrier was ordered out of service. The new carrier operated for more than a year before it was cited in November 2008 for violations including insufficient registration. A $2,000 fine was assessed; the company was ordered out of service in March.
• A California bus company was cited for 18 safety violations in May 2007, including drivers who refused to take mandatory drug tests, and was fined $2,200. The carrier began to correct some of its violations but failed to pay the fine. A new company with the same phone number, fax number and company officer name was formed in October 2007. FMCSA subsequently ordered the old company out of service in February; the new company was still active as of May.
This is a problem that the government regulatory agencies must fix. It’s quite evident that Congress should pass legislation needed to fix the problem. Highway safety should be a top priority for the Obama Administration and Congress.
Source: Insurance Journal
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