The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) recently issued findings on an October 2003 fatal truck/bus crash in Illinois. The report cited concerns regarding the oversight of smaller interstate carriers that are identical to those listed in a report issued last February relating to a different fatal crash.
In the Illinois crash, seven occupants of a tour bus were fatally injured when it was rear-ended by an intermodal tractor-trailer while sitting in a line of traffic at an Interstate tollbooth.
NTSB determined that the probable cause of the crash was the failure of the intermodal truck driver, who was driving too fast for traffic conditions, to slow down. The traffic backup in a 45-mph zone, created by vehicles stopping for the toll plaza, was considered a contributing factor. The agency also determined that both carriers involved had safety oversight problems.
The tour bus was operated by a small passenger motor carrier that had reduced its insurance coverage to less than the federally required minimum following a decline in business after the September 11 terrorist attacks. Although FMCSA had rescinded the carrier's interstate operating authority, the carrier continued to operate. A post-crash review also uncovered numerous driver and vehicle oversight violations, resulting in a safety rating of “conditional.”
The tractor-trailer involved in the crash was operated by a small intermodal carrier with similar safety oversight problems. During a compliance review one year before the accident, it, too, had been given a safety rating of “conditional.” The post-accident review found continuing driver and vehicle oversight violations.
Two questions come immediately to mind: Don't we have laws precluding a carrier whose operating authority has been revoked from continuing to do business? And exactly how long can a carrier with a “conditional” safety rating continue to operate?
NTSB determined that although FMCSA has laws prohibiting carriers from operating once their “authority” has been revoked, it doesn't' routinely follow up and rarely prosecutes a carrier that continues to operate under those conditions.
The same holds true with respect to corrective action for carriers that have been assigned “conditional” safety ratings. In fact, NTSB determined that many small carriers with such ratings continued to operate without instituting safety improvements. It also found that eight recent high-profile crash investigations — resulting in a total of 43 fatalities — involved small motor carriers that had been given a safety rating of “conditional” either before the crash or subsequent to a post-crash compliance review.
These findings indicate the need for tougher oversight for small interstate motor carriers. FMCSA, Congress and the motor carrier industry all recognize this important need. With that need in mind, FMCSA is conducting a complete review of its safety rating process, called “Comprehensive Safety Analysis 2010.” Although not widely publicized, the intent of the effort is to establish an operational model that could be used by the agency to confirm that a carrier has a safe operation. The model would also identify unsafe motor carriers and subject them to more focused compliance and enforcement activities.
I urge you to support FMCSA in this daunting challenge. To review the reports, go to www.fmcsa.dot.gov/safety-security.csalisteningsessions.htm
Jim York is the manager of Zurich Service Corp.'s Risk Engineering Transportation Team, based in Schaumburg, IL.