FMCSA — Who’s watching the watchdog? Criticism from Senator, NTSB begs the question

Meet Renato Velasquez, a driver for DND International who in January struck and killed an Illinois Tollway worker and seriously injured a state trooper, both stopped on the side of the road outside Chicago. Both vehicles had their emergency lights on as they were assisting a motorist with a broken-down truck.

After an investigation by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, it was discovered that Velasquez had been on duty for 26 hours with less than 5.5 hours of rest. After issuing a shutdown order for Velasquez in February, last month FMCSA shut down DND International after it was determined that of the seven company drivers the agency investigated, all had falsified their logbooks.

However, a U.S. Department of Transportation judge threw out FMCSA’s decision, allowing the Naperville-based carrier to resume normal operations, saying the violations found by the agency did not pose an imminent safety hazard as defined by federal regulations. A review of the March 2014 Motor Carrier Safety Measurement System showed the fleet had scores of 81.2 percent and 86.1 percent in the Unsafe Driving and Hours of Service Compliance Behavior Analysis and Safety Improvement Categories, respectively.

According to a Chicago Tribune report, FMCSA had ordered an investigation of DND International last August – five months before the crash – but never actually completed one.

Trucking industry groups long have held that the agency’s Compliance Safety Accountability program is a worthwhile safety initiative but maintains it has too many flaws. I am in no way blaming FMCSA for the crash that occurred in January, but the accident highlights flaws with the system. CSA’s charter – to eliminate bad actors from the industry and improve agency resources to better target and investigate at-risk carriers – clearly failed. In order for the program to be a success, the window of time from identifying poor performers to investigation to intervention has to improve.

CSA’s shortcomings in light of the accident sparked rebuke from U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), who said in a letter to the DOT inspector general calling for a review of FMCSA procedures that DND International had been allowed to continue operations for years despite its poor safety record.

“Earlier intervention and follow-through by FMCSA could have avoided this tragedy, and we need to take a hard look into whether FMCSA is taking the proper steps to keep these accidents waiting to happen off the road,” Durbin said in his letter to Calvin L. Scovel III, DOT’s inspector general.

This latest criticism comes on the heels of a 104-page report issued by the Government Accountability Office that pointed out several shortcomings with CSA, saying the program is limited in the data used to calculate carrier scores and the reliability of those scores.

And in November, the National Transportation Safety Board went so far as to recommend FMCSA be audited – saying its own report “raised serious questions about the oversight of motor carrier operations” – after investigating four crashes, including a highly publicized accident in Elizabethtown, Ky., where a truck crashed into an SUV and killed six passengers. In that case, NTSB noted that FMCSA had performed a compliance review on the carrier a month before the crash but didn’t give the carrier a rating despite numerous violations in the Hours of Service and Unsafe Driving BASICs.

Late last month, a FMCSA subcommittee for CSA met to develop recommendations for changes to the program, and the key recommendations that came out of the meetings involved greater education to those who see the public CSA rankings and make judgments on them, rather than actual structural or data changes to the program.

Frustration continues to mount with CSA, and even FMCSA itself has said the program is a work in progress. After three and a half years since the program was fully implemented, the time for changes and tweaks to the program is now. As the two crashes mentioned above illustrate, lives literally depend on it.