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FMCSA not cracking down on repeat rule breakers: Inspector General

WASHINGTON -- The U.S. DOT's watchdog has found that the department's motor carrier regulatory arm has significantly improved oversight of carrier safety since its last audit in 1999, but needs to do better in identifying a pattern of violations by truckers and closing loopholes so that repeat violators don't escape maximum fines.

In a new audit report by the Office of the Inspector General, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration has cleaned up operations since the OIG told it in 1999 that it was not sufficiently ensuring carriers were complying with all the safety rules on the books. That report, which came after successive years of escalating truck-related fatalities, also noted that FMCSA's Office of Motor Carriers was "too close to the trucking industry."

Things have since improved in the last seven years, notes the OIG, despite the FMCSA facing substantial implementations such as hours-of-service, quality of motor carrier data, and other safety issues. The number of large truck-related fatalities decreased from 5,395 in 1998 to 4,939 in 2002, notes the OIG.

FMCSA has to do a better job in measuring
compliance during audits: DOT watchdog

Although FMCSA has made progress, several significant challenges remain. For one thing, notes the IG, too many motor carriers were allowed to escape maximum fines because FMCSA was slow to fully implementing the 1999 audit recommendations. FMCSA issued an initial "three strikes" policy in September 2000, but did not properly enforce it and did not provide sufficient notice to the motor carrier industry, according to the new report.

During this four-year period, FMCSA enforced maximum civil penalties against 146 motor carriers. However, 71 additional motor carriers who repeatedly violated the safety regulations were not assessed maximum penalties. Furthermore, carriers who committed violations from September 2000 to March 2004 were essentially given a clean slate, as violations during this period did not count in identifying a pattern of violations.

Because undocumented violations are not considered in identifying a pattern of violations, repeat violators of the same regulation may not always be assessed the maximum penalty. For example, between September 2000 and October 2004, 533 carriers repeatedly violated either the HOS or the drug and alcohol regulations, and 67 repeatedly violated both regulations. Because some violations were not documented, and thus not enforced on the Notice of Claim, only 33 (6 percent) of the 533 motor carriers received the maximum penalty. This loophole, says OIG, allows hundreds of motor carriers to repeatedly violate significant safety rules without exposure to maximum penalties.

FMCSA also needs to further improve the quality of motor carrier data, continue monitoring states’ progress in conducting safety audits to maintain timeliness and enhance effectiveness, and complete one required rulemaking to combine the commercial driver’s license and the medical certificate, the report states.

About 192,000 (27 percent) of 702,277 existing motor carriers in the DOT database did not update census data on drivers and trucks; and since 2002, only 20 civil penalties were imposed against motor carriers for failing to update their census data.

Additionally, state crash forms do not consistently define a large truck or a reportable crash, resulting in confusion regarding the crash information FMCSA needs, according to the report. Data quality is especially important because census and crash data are used by SafeStat to rank the safety performance of motor carriers and target them for compliance reviews and inspections.

In respect to safety audits, the OIG acknowledges FMCSA has done a reasonably good job of gradually increasing production and training of safety auditors. As of Nov. 1, 2005 about 78 percent of a total 66,373 safety audits were completed, and that only 663 motor carriers were not audited within 18 months as required.

However, the report states that although safety audits have been timely, FMCSA needs toe to monitor safety audit progress to ensure continued timeliness.

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