September 17, 2007: By Kevin Jones: The federal government is not being tough enough on trucking companies that are violating safety laws, says Rep. Jim Oberstar, chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.
Oberstar, a Minnesota Democrat, on Friday cited a recently released report by the General Accounting Office, compiled at the committee’s request, that concluded the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) is identifying high risk carriers, but not following through with tough fines mandated by law.
In a letter to FMCSA Administrator John Hill, Oberstar used the report findings to take the agency to task for not complying with specific enforcement mandates, calling the agency’s actions “indefensible and unacceptable.”
“I am deeply troubled by the GAO findings regarding FMCSA’s practice of assessing fines to motor carriers that repeatedly violate critical motor carrier safety statutes,” Oberstar wrote. “I strongly urge FMCSA to amend its policies immediately to be consistent with statutory requirements with respect to maximum penalties for repeat rule violators.”
FMCSA’s policy to assess maximum fines against serious rule violators is “essentially meaningless and violates the law,” Oberstar continued, quoting chapter and verse from the Motor Carrier Safety Improvement Act of 1999.
The congressman pointed out the discrepancy between the number of carriers that were given the maximum fine (280 in 2006) versus the number that GOA contends should have been (1,320) if FMCSA had followed the law.
Oberstar asked to know, within 30 days, what specific actions FMCSA has taken to comply with the statutory requirements.
According to the GAO report, “by and large” FMCSA does a good job of identifying carriers that pose a high risk of crash risks — following up with more than 99 percent of 1,196 carriers that received proposed unsatisfactory safety ratings from compliance reviews completed in fiscal year 2005.
GAO did find, however, that that the agency does not, as it should, assess the maximum fines against carriers with a pattern of varied serious violations. Similarly, the agency’s “three strikes rule” is contrary to the GAO’s interpretation of the statute, which calls for maximum fines after the second instance of a violation.
The GAO recommended that FMCSA select certain high-risk carriers in the accident safety evaluation area for compliance reviews and revise its policy for assessing maximum fines.
The Department of Transportation said that it would “assess the efficacy” of the first recommendation, the GAO noted, but that it did not comment on the other recommendations.
In an FMCSA statement, Hill responded by saying the agency had met with the GAO in June to review the initial findings, as well as with the Department of Transportation’s Inspector General “on similar issues.”
“Our efforts to target high-risk carriers for compliance reviews has no doubt contributed to the 5 percent reduction in large truck-related fatalities last year, and we appreciate the GAO’s acknowledgement of our successful record on these matters,” said Hill. “We agreed to change our policy at that time to address the findings of both parties and are in the process of moving forward.”
The 72-page GAO report is available on the Web
Kevin Jones is a reporter for The Trucker.