House chairman wants maximum fines

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The U.S. House transportation committee chairman has asked the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration to change its policies to levy the maximum fines against carriers that repeatedly violate safety regulations.

U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar, D-Minn., requested the recent Government Accountability Office report on FMCSA, issued Aug. 28 but publicly released Sept. 14. The GAO report said FMCSA should tweak its priorities for compliance reviews. It also said the agency doesn’t levy maximum fines as the law requires, but should. In response to that report, the U.S. Department of Transportation said it would assess the first recommendation but didn’t comment on the second.

Oberstar’s own response to the report was a letter to FMCSA head John Hill, requesting within 30 days his specific plans to levy maximum fines on high-risk carriers. Hill replied by saying agency officials already met with GAO and with the DOT inspector general on similar issues. “We agreed to change our policy at that time to address the findings of both parties and are in the process of moving forward,” Hill said. The agency did not respond to a request to clarify whether Hill referred only to compliance-review priorities or to fines as well.

GAO said FMCSA should levy maximum fines after the second violation, instead of waiting until the third; Oberstar noted a 2006 inspector general report that found the agency usually doesn’t issue maximum fines even then. The GAO report also found FMCSA had not complied with a 2005 law requiring it to conduct compliance reviews on all carriers with a SafeStat category rating of A or B, the categories with the worst safety records, for two consecutive months. The agency did this for only 51 percent of the carriers that qualified, GAO reported.

Oberstar also noted a 1999 law requiring FMCSA to cut commercial motor vehicle fatalties in half by 2009. “The FMCSA has made little progress toward this goal,” Oberstar wrote. “In 2005, 5,212 individuals were killed in large-truck accidents, compared to 5,365 in 1999.” That improvement of less than 3 percent in fatalities also was brought to Hill’s attention in a July hearing on Capitol Hill in which Calvin Scovel, DOT inspector general, said FMCSA’s progress had “flatlined” and that further reductions in fatalities would be difficult to achieve.

The complete text of Oberstar’s letter to Hill can be read at the congressman’s website.