Last Wednesday, the U.S. Government Accountability office (GAO) released a new report on unsafe commercial trucks and buses that’s highly disturbing, even to the lawyers in our law firm, who have been handling truck accidents for more than 50 years. The report found that more than 500 trucking and bus companies that were ordered by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMSCA) to be shut down for safety violations are continuing to operate under different names.
The GAO report also found another 1,073 commercial trucking firms that are believed possible “reincarnations” after incurring fines and violations. These reincarnated trucking companies are often using the same address, owner name, employees and contact information.
This information begs the question: How many trucking companies in Michigan are “chameleon carriers”? That is, a trucking company ordered to shut down because of serious safety violations but that simply continues to operate under a new name.
There are no Michigan figures regarding how many trucking companies apply, but as past-president of the American Association for Justice Truck Litigation Group, and a current Board of Governor for the Association of Plaintiff Interstate Truck Lawyers of America, I can tell you, the numbers here are likely much higher than the national average.
Why? Because Michigan does not have punitive damages. And without them, there is no “big stick” to deter criminal decision-making by trucking companies that hire the most dangerous and unfit truck drivers and that continue to put trucks on the roads that have been repeatedly fined for serious safety violations.
The worst truck drivers in the country come to Michigan from other states after they’ve received too many tickets or caused too many crashes. They know Michigan is lacking punitives, so a trucking company will only be liable for the specific crash it causes, not for serial forgeries of log books, ignoring pre-trip inspections, or causing too many crashes.
How many more people have to die in preventable truck crashes every year? To put things in perspective, nearly 5,000 people die in truck accidents each year. That’s the equivalent to one commercial airplane falling out of the sky each week and killing everyone on board. If a plane was falling out of the sky this frequently, wouldn’t the government jump on it?
Yes, there are some proposed changes coming. CSA 2010, the Department of Transportation’s online assessment of a particular motor carrier’s regulatory compliance, will be an improvement to the current SafeStat database. But this is only a minor change, and it won’t take effect any time soon.
The GAO report is only the tip of the iceberg. If, as is widely estimated, only 2 percent of trucking companies are being inspected right now, then how many more rogue companies and unfit drivers are there? And as the economy continues to struggle, the easiest decision for financially strapped trucking operations is to make cuts in safety and maintenance. CSA 2010 may expand the scope of safety measurement systems, but it still depends too much on implementation from overstretched federal and state investigators.
So don’t expect the dangers to diminish.
As a truck accident lawyer who has devoted dozens of hours to public safety changes in recent years, I know unfortunately, that there will be countless more tragic truck accidents due to unsafe trucking companies. Tomorrow I will blog about the dangerous trucking company crisis in Michigan.
– Photo courtesy of Creative Commons, by Jacob Botter