Fleets can't count on state agencies to help keep unsafe drivers off the road

Many fleet managers are under the somewhat mistaken impression that they can rely on state authorities to identify and disqualify CDL holders with unacceptable safety records. After all, wasn't the Commercial Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 1986 designed to eliminate multiple driver licenses and disqualify unsafe drivers from operating commercial motor vehicles?

It certainly was. But while the first goal has been met, the second hasn't. DOT recently released a report called "Disqualifying Commercial Drivers" (#MH-2000-106), which looks at state procedures and FMCSA oversight of actions to disqualify CDL holders with unacceptable safety records.

According to the report, states are not disqualifying commercial drivers as required by law; they're granting special licenses to commercial drivers who pose a safety risk; and they're withholding from drivers' records convictions for "disqualifying" violations.

DOT tracked some of the 8,133 traffic convictions incurred by CDL holders that were transmitted electronically via the Commercial Driver License Information System June 1-17, 1999. They also visited and interviewed the staffs of driver licensing agencies in nine states and the District of Columbia. Here are some of their findings:

* Over 60% of the drivers convicted for disqualifying offenses were not disqualified from driving commercial motor vehicles, even when the convictions were properly recorded.

* 7 of the 10 agencies visited and 15 states responding to written requests issue special or provisional licenses to drivers convicted of disqualifying offenses.

* 17% of all out-of-state convictions take longer than 90 days to be transmitted to the driver's home licensing state.

* 6 of 10 agencies visited and 20 states responding to written data requests have conviction-masking programs that withhold convictions from commercial driver records.

Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations prohibit carriers from knowingly allowing, requiring, permitting or authorizing a CDL holder to drive after being convicted of a disqualifying offense. Seven new disqualifying offenses were added to the list in the Motor Carrier Safety Act of 1999:

* Driving a commercial motor vehicle with a revoked, canceled or suspended license;

* Causing a fatality through negligent or criminal commercial motor vehicle operation;

* Driving a commercial motor vehicle without having a CDL;

* Driving a commercial vehicle without a CDL in your possession;

* Not meeting the minimum testing standards for the type of cargo hauled or vehicle being driven;

* Conviction of a serious offense while operating a noncommercial motor vehicle;

* Conviction of a drug- or alcohol-related offense while operating a noncommercial motor vehicle.

It's clear that states are way behind the curve when it comes to fulfilling their responsibilities for taking CDLs away from drivers convicted of disqualifying offenses. And effective implementation of compliance programs could take years.

We can't afford to jeopardize our businesses while we wait for the states to do their job. It only takes one adverse court decision to "zero out" the assets of a small- or medium-size fleet. If you have a driver with a disqualifying offense on their record who then gets involved in a serious preventable accident, you could find yourself out of business.

In-house driver performance monitoring systems are the only sure way to identify "at risk" drivers. If you haven't already done so, I urge you to implement such a system immediately to identify the bad apples. Don't hold your breath waiting for the state to do it for you.

[ Jim York is a senior risk engineering consultant at Zurich Insurance, Fredricksburg, Va.]