Looking for some juicy information about your competitors? Although the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) is generous about making wholesale information about carriers public, some information remains hidden until you ask for it through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

Last year, FMCSA responded to approximately 900 inquiries about carriers, according to Joy Dunlap, Freedom of Information team leader. Most of the requests were for legal documents, especially the intimate details of lawsuits between carriers and actions against carriers by the government.

A good deal of information is available without an FOIA request, including Motor Carrier Safety Ratings, carrier accident file extracts, accident count reports, carrier snapshots, carrier Safestat reports and aggregate carrier statistics.

If you want more details, however, you have to make a request under FOIA. You can ask for reports on individual fleets relating to enforcement, compliance reviews, roadside driver and vehicle inspection reports, state accident reports and correspondence between a carrier and government agencies.

FOIA requests can also net copies of final orders of the agency, which may include the following: negotiated Settlement Agreements; Notices of Claim (to which a motor carrier has replied and/or failed to reply); and Out-of-Service Orders. You can also obtain final opinions and orders issued by FMCSA, Administrative Rulings issued by an Administrative Law Judge in the settlement of motor carrier enforcement cases, and decisions of the Chief Safety Officer.

After an FOIA request is responded to, the information becomes public domain. But unlike the FBI or Secret Service, which keeps frequently requested documents available in reading rooms for browsing (files on Elvis Presley and UFOs are big draws), FMCSA doesn't keep such open shelves.

Dunlap provided some specific examples of the kind of information you can get if you ask for it. For instance, documents show in great detail a compliance review done on Whitney Express, Taylor, MI, dated April 19, 2000. Although the fleet had some minor failings that were quickly corrected, garnering the company a “satisfactory rating,” additional information in the report could be of great use to a competitor.

While the list of violations always makes interesting reading, the most useful competitive information is usually found in the description of the company.

For example, documents show that Whitney Express' main contract is with Burlington Air Express, and that it usually operates within a 100-mile radius. The fleet had gross revenues of $2,923,263 in 1999; has 33 trucks, 13 tractors and 13 trailers; and its 46 drivers all have CDLs. The documents show that Whitney didn't conduct proper driver alcohol testing and didn't maintain records of such tests from past employers. They also provide details of driving schedules, how drivers were paid, how much driving they did, and their downtime.

Another example was a full carrier profile of Canal Cartage Co., Houston, which includes, in FMCSA's own words, “all usable data that has been reported to the FMCSA through the requirements of state and federal programs.” The 37-page report contained facts that are normally “hidden,” including details about crashes, equipment and driver violations, number or miles driven and roadside inspections results, down to the condition of individual lights.

The government keeps this information on file for six years. Once a letter requesting information has been received, government agencies are required to respond within 20 business days.

However, there are nine exemptions that disallow public disclosure of certain information. These include references to internal agency rules and practices, classified national defense and foreign relations information, trade secrets, inter-agency or intra-agency communications that are protected by legal privileges, and information involving matters of personal privacy.

If FMCSA determines that a piece of information should not be included, it will delete or cross out that section of the document and explain why. A filer can appeal the deletion within 30 days of the initial request.

This information is not free. FMCSA can charge for the time it takes to search for the information, review charges and duplicate the documents. If the amount is over $25, the agency will tell you in advance — unless you've agreed that you're willing to spend more.

Many carriers turn the tables on competitors and regularly request their own files to see what others could glean from it.