Motor Carrier Safety:

Reincarnating Commercial Vehicle Companies Pose Safety Threat to Motoring Public; Federal Safety Agency Has Initiated Efforts to Prevent Future Occurrences

GAO-09-924: Published: Jul 28, 2009. Publicly Released: Jul 30, 2009.

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In 2008, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) reports that there were about 300 fatalities from bus crashes in the United States. Although bus crashes are relatively rare, they are particularly deadly since many individuals may be involved. FMCSA tries to identify unsafe motor coach carriers and take them off the road. GAO was asked to determine (1) to the extent possible, the number of motor coach carriers registered with FMCSA as new entrants in fiscal years 2007 and 2008 that are substantially related to or in essence the same carriers the agency previously ordered out of service, and (2) what tools FMCSA uses to identify reincarnated carriers. To identify new entrants that were substantially related to carriers placed out of service, we analyzed FMCSA data to find matches on key fields (e.g., ownership, phone numbers, etc.). Our analysis understates the actual number of reincarnated carriers because, among other things, the matching scheme used cannot detect minor spelling changes or other deception efforts. We interviewed FMCSA officials on how the agency identifies reincarnated carriers. GAO is not making any recommendations. In July 2009, GAO briefed FMCSA on our findings and incorporated their comments, as appropriate.

Our analysis of FMCSA data for fiscal years 2007 and 2008 identified twenty motor coach companies that likely reincarnated from "out of service" carriers. This represents about 9 percent of the approximately 220 motor coach carriers that FMCSA placed out of service during these two fiscal years. The number of likely reincarnated motor carriers is understated, in part, because our analysis was based on exact matches and also could not identify owners who purposely provided FMCSA deceptive information on the application (e.g., ownership) to hide the reincarnation from the agency. Although the number of reincarnated motor coach carriers that we could identify was small, these companies pose a safety threat to the motoring public. According to FMCSA officials, under registration and enforcement policies up to summer 2008, reincarnation was relatively simple to do and hard to detect. As a result, motor coach carriers known to be safety risks were continuing to operate. According to FMCSA data, five of the twenty bus companies were still in operation as of May 2009. We referred these cases to FMCSA for further investigation. The twenty cases that we identified as likely reincarnations were registered with FMCSA at the time that FMCSA did not have any dedicated controls in place to prevent motor coach carriers from reincarnating. In 2008, FMCSA instituted a process to identify violators by checking applicant information against those of poor-performing carriers. For example, if FMCSA finds a new entrant with a shared owner name or company address for an out-of-service company, the agency will make inquiries to determine if the new applicant is related to the out-of-service carrier. If such a determination is made, FMCSA still faces legal hurdles, such as proving corporate successorship, to deny the company operating authority.

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