Senator criticizes compliance reviews

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In an April 19 subcommittee hearing, U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., took the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration to task for “ineffective” carrier compliance reviews.

“The National Transportation Safety Board has determined that the FMCSA’s compliance review process is – in their words – ‘ineffective,'” said Murray, chair of the Senate transportation appropriations subcommittee. “I also suspect it explains why the NTSB has determined that the FMCSA responses to its recommendations in this area have been ‘unacceptable.'”

She cited Washington Post coverage of a trucker with traffic citations in seven states – including, in one state, seven license suspensions in 11 years – who was driving on a suspended license when he crashed into a vehicle on the Capital Beltway in March, killing a 33-year-old father of two.

The truck driver, who was cited for reckless driving, worked for BK Trucking of Newfield, N.J., which Murray said was on an FMCSA watch list “because of an unusually high number of accidents and deficient inspections.” The Post reported that BK Trucking, a 160-vehicle fleet, had been involved in 23 crashes since 2004. The company did not respond to eTrucker’s request for comment.

A little more than three weeks before the Beltway accident, the FMCSA did a full-scale compliance review of BK Trucking, Murray said. Inspectors found a few problems, mostly with logbooks, but found no “critical” or “acute” violations, Murray said.

Only three days after the accident, Murray said, the agency returned to the company and discovered improper lease agreements, lack of compliance with drug and alcohol testing procedures, drivers with suspended commercial driver’s licenses, failure to maintain records of state inspections, maintenance of false logbooks, failure to turn in logbooks, and failure to prepare driver inspection reports.

“So just one month after the FMCSA conducted a compliance review and found only minimal problems, the agency did another compliance review and found multiple violations and wrote up fines totaling $77,000,” Murray said.

FMCSA Administrator John Hill did not address the BK Trucking case in his testimony, but he told the subcommittee his agency does many effective compliance reviews and places many carriers out of service. “We know from analysis of our compliance review programs that after a compliance review, carriers improve their safety operations,” Hill said.

Hill noted that the United States had achieved the lowest large truck fatality rate in 30 years. “This means that despite more trucks traveling more miles — over 7 percent in the past five years — the proportion of fatalities is down,” Hill said. Hill also said the most recent transportation funding bill grants FMCSA a new tool in its efforts: Motor Carrier Safety Assistance Program Grants for simple traffic enforcement of commercial motor vehicles, even without an accompanying safety inspection.

Murray addressed a number of additional highway-safety issues. Since 2003, the number of annual highway fatalities has increased by more than 2,000, to 43,400 deaths a year, Murray said. “For the first time in several years, the fatality rate — the statistical likelihood that a citizen will be killed on our highways — has actually increased,” Murray said. “After many years of slow but steady progress, the numbers are now going in the wrong direction.”

Only half the states have enacted primary seatbelt laws, and those that exist need to be enforced, Murray said. Not enough states permanently remove repeat drunk drivers from behind the wheel, she said.

The Bush administration’s initial goal of reducing the highway fatality rate to 1 per 100 million vehicle miles traveled by 2008 has been pushed back until 2011, Murray said — long after Bush is out of office.