Motor Carrier Safety: Federal Safety Agency Identifies Many High-Risk Carriers but Does Not Assess Maximum Fines as Often as Required by Law

GAO-07-584 Published: Aug 28, 2007. Publicly Released: Sep 14, 2007.
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Highlights

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) has the primary federal responsibility for reducing crashes involving large trucks and buses. FMCSA uses its "SafeStat" tool to target carriers for reviews of their compliance with the agency's safety regulations based on their crash rates and safety violations. As requested, this study reports on (1) the extent to which FMCSA's policy for prioritizing compliance reviews targets carriers with a high risk of crashes, (2) how FMCSA ensures compliance reviews are thorough and consistent, and (3) the extent to which FMCSA follows up with carriers with serious safety violations. To complete this work, GAO reviewed FMCSA's regulations, policies, and safety data and contacted FMCSA officials in headquarters and nine field offices.

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Recommendations

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Department of Transportation In our June 2007 report on the effectiveness of SafeStat, we recommended that FMCSA use a regression model approach to identify carriers that pose high crash risks rather than its expert judgment approach. Should the Secretary of Transportation decide not to implement that recommendation, the Secretary of Transportation should direct the FMCSA Administrator to improve FMCSA's targeting of carriers that pose high crash risks, modify FMCSA's policy for prioritizing compliance reviews so that carriers with very poor scores (such as the worst 5 percent) in the accident safety evaluation area will be selected for compliance reviews, regardless of their scores in the other areas.
Closed - Implemented
In August 2008, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) revised its policy to give high priority for compliance reviews to carriers with scores in the worst 5 percent in the accident safety evaluation area, regardless of their scores in the other safety evaluation areas, as long as the carrier has not received a compliance review within the previous 24 months.
Department of Transportation The Secretary of Transportation should direct the FMCSA Administrator to help ensure that carriers rated conditional make safety improvements in a timely manner, establish a reasonable time frame within which FMCSA should conduct follow-up compliance reviews on such carriers.
Closed - Implemented
In 2007, GAO reported that the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) reviews of motor carriers' compliance with safety regulations were resource intensive and allowed only a small percentage of carriers to be evaluated. Nevertheless, FMCSA's policy required that the agency conduct follow-up compliance reviews on carriers with conditional safety ratings, and FMCSA was able to conduct follow-up compliance reviews of most carriers with serious safety violations. In addition, over the years, FMCSA had reduced the number of carriers rated conditional that needed a follow-up review. However, FMCSA had not established a time frame within which carriers rated conditional were to receive follow-up compliance reviews. As a result, many carriers with conditional ratings could continue to operate for 2 years or more without a follow-up compliance review. Therefore, GAO recommended that FMCSA establish a reasonable time frame within which FMCSA should conduct follow-up compliance reviews on such carriers. In 2010, FMCSA began implementing the Compliance, Safety and Accountability (CSA) initiative, a data driven approach to evaluate safety performance that is not contingent on compliance reviews. CSA has a computer algorithm that uses safety data inputs to measure the safety performance of carriers and prompt an expanded set of FMCSA interventions with carriers, such as warning letters and off-site investigations to address safety problems. Under CSA, FMCSA does not automatically conduct follow-up reviews of carriers with conditional ratings, but rather identifies at-risk carriers based on the computer algorithm for a follow-up review beginning 12 to 24 months after the initial compliance review. In particular, FMCSA's policy calls for carriers designated "high risk" in two consecutive monthly assessments to receive a compliance review within 12 months, so long as the carrier has not received a compliance review in the previous 24 months, which implements the spirit of GAO's recommendation. Therefore, FMCSA has assurance that at-risk carriers make safety improvements in a timely manner, which should reduce motor carrier crashes, fatalities, and injuries.
Department of Transportation The Secretary of Transportation should direct the FMCSA Administrator to meet the Motor Carrier Safety Improvement Act's requirement to assess maximum fines and improve the deterrent effect of these fines, revise FMCSA's related policy to include (1) a definition for a pattern of violations that is distinct from the repetition of the same or related violations and (2) a two strikes rule rather than a three strikes rule.
Closed - Implemented
In March 2009 FMCSA issued a supplemental policy on assessing maximum fines that includes (1) a definition for a pattern of violations that is distinct from the repetition of the same or related violations and (2) a two strikes rule. The policy defines a "pattern of violations" as two or more critical or acute violations in each of three or more different regulatory parts (i.e., a minimum of six acute and/or critical violations). The policy subjects carriers with such a pattern to maximum fines only if the carrier has had previous contact with FMCSA or a state partner, such as a compliance review or a new entrant safety audit, that FMCSA deems is reasonably likely to have alerted the carrier to FMCSA's regulatory and enforcement jurisdiction. The supplemental policy also maintains maximum penalties for third strikes, while creating a new second strike category. The policy defines a second strike as an acute violation discovered within 6 years of the closure of one previous case containing a violation of a critical or acute regulation in the same part. This differs from third strikes, which can be either critical or acute violations. In addition, under FMCSA's previous three-strikes policy, proposed maximum penalties could not be settled for less than the amount assessed. Under the supplemental policy, all penalties, including patterns, two-strikes, and three-strikes cases, may be settled with a suspension of a portion of the assessed penalty, under circumstances deemed appropriate by FMCSA, such as a significant investment by the carrier in advanced technology.

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