It’s three days on from the horrific crash of a tractor-trailer that plowed into Amtrak’s westbound Zephyr passenger train as it rolled across the Nevada desert, yet few official details have been released by investigators beyond a preliminary death toll, now standing at six. But it is being widely reported in the general news media that the trucking company that the offending driver worked for has a long record of substantial safety violations stacked up against it.

Make no mistake, along with the lives lost and the injuries caused by the wreck, the crash is a sharp stick in the eye of all those in trucking and government alike who have been very publicly working across numerous fronts this year to increase commercial-vehicle (CV) safety performance.

It’s clear even now that once the investigative dust has settled a key question that will emerge from this incident will be: Why was a trucking company with so many safety violations still in operation?

And that one will in turn beg the bigger issue of how many other such cited-as-unsafe trucking operations—despite all that is being done to enhance CV safety-- are legally operating on our nation’s roads and highways?

The explosive crash occurred on Friday, June 24, about 70 miles east of Reno, NV, at 11:25 am PDT when a tractor-trailer—lead rig in a three-truck convoy—skidded some 320 ft before breaking through the RR crossing gates and slamming into the Zephyr, causing several train cars to burst into flames. The driver of the truck, an Amtrak conductor and four others on the train comprise the known dead.

According to an Associated Press (AP) wire report, as of this morning, five persons remained unaccounted for and investigators stated “they’ve yet to find any more bodies in the wreck that left six dead.” AP pointed out that the resulting blaze from the truck slamming into the side of the train was so hot, that the Churchill County coroner’s office sought out at least one forensic anthropologist to assist, according to a Nevada Highway Patrol trooper.

(See news video from the crash scene)

On Friday, The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) dispatched a “Go-Team” to the site to begin its investigation of the crash. Robert Accetta has been named Investigator-in-Charge for the team and NTSB Member Earl Weener will serve as principal spokesman during the on-scene phase of the investigation.

The deceased driver was employed by Battle Mountain, NV-based John Davis Trucking Co., which hauls ore from local mines as well as gravel and sand.

AP said federal safety records it reviewed “showed the Nevada Dept. of Public Safety has cited the company for crashes, unsafe driving, and most seriously, operating a truck with tire treads so exposed that it had to be taken off the road.”

(See video regarding the NTSB investigation)

And an online record review by The Sacramento Bee showed the carrier had been cited twice for unsafe driving in the past 24 months as well as getting 17 maintenance-violation citations. Four of those were related to problems with braking systems; two others involved worn tires.

According to NTSB’s Weener, NTSB had conducted 19 random roadside inspections of trucks operated by John Davis Trucking since last September. While those inspections yielded seven citations, only one violation was severe enough to order a truck out of service [the tire violation noted above]..

Tomorrow, several teams of NTSB investigators are slated to review the trucking company’s records and those of the driver involved.

Weener advised media that all traffic signals were functioning at the time of the crash and, per news reports, that the train signals should have been visible to the driver from half a mile away.

He added that a full investigation into the cause of the wreck could take more than a year.

In response to a FleetOwner query on the crash , the American Trucking Assns. (ATA) replied with this statement:

”We were saddened by the tragic crash near Reno, Nev., last week and our sympathies go out to all those affected by it. With the trucking industry now operating as safe as it ever has, these incidents remind us there is certainly more to do. American Trucking Associations has long been a supporter of efforts to educate commercial drivers, as well as the general motoring public, about the risks associated with railroad crossings and the importance of complying with warning lights and signals. ATA also supports current rules governing highway-grade rail crossings and recently asked the federal government to do more to improve signage and safety at certain types of crossings. Finally, ATA appreciates that the National Transportation Safety Board is currently conducting an investigation of this crash and we are eager to see the results of that inquiry. This investigation is crucial and it would be inappropriate for anyone to speculate on a possible cause of this crash until it is completed.”