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Motor Carrier Operations: Improvements Needed to Federal System for Collecting and Addressing Complaints against Truck, Moving, and Bus Companies

GAO-23-105972 Published: Sep 19, 2023. Publicly Released: Sep 19, 2023.
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Fast Facts

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration aims to reduce crashes, injuries, and deaths involving large trucks and buses.

To that end, FMCSA collects complaints against companies that operate these vehicles. The complaints can be related to safety—e.g., speeding or reckless driving—or to problems like unfair business practices. FMCSA reviews these complaints, but its guidance is not clear. Specifically, FMCSA guidance doesn't define key terms or provide clear instructions for its staff. Improving this guidance could help FMCSA respond to safety and other emerging concerns.

Our recommendations are to help FMCSA improve this and other issues.

A tractor trailer driving under the arch of a bridge in low light.

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Highlights

What GAO Found

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA), within the Department of Transportation, maintains complaint data submitted against large commercial truck, moving, and bus companies—which are types of motor carriers. GAO found that FMCSA makes some but not all of this complaint data available to the public, which is not consistent with Department of Transportation policy. As a result, FMCSA may be missing the opportunity to improve transparency and collaboration with industry partners.

Types of Vehicles Used by Motor Carriers

Types of Vehicles Used by Motor Carriers

FMCSA has not designed sufficient controls to help ensure its policy for reviewing complaints related to motor carriers is followed. For example, FMCSA's guidance is organized by seven complaint categories. However, the guidance does not define several key terms, including the complaint categories, or define how the categories align with over 100 possible allegations. Matching the allegation to a category may be challenging without definitions. As a result, FMCSA may not have adequate assurance that staff are consistently applying the appropriate complaint review guidance. Ultimately, this could affect FMCSA's ability to respond to unsafe motor company practices.

GAO also found that FMCSA's public-facing complaint website partially followed leading practices for federal website design and usability. For example, the website works on frequently used web browsers and the content is organized around user-friendly topics, in line with leading practices. However, the complaint website's content is not consistently easy to view on mobile devices. According to FMCSA officials, about half of users access the website on mobile devices. Representatives of industry associations noted that mobile access is particularly important for truck drivers.

FCMSA has conducted some outreach activities for its complaint website, but has not developed a plan to guide these activities. According to GAO's review, FMCSA promotes the website through the “Protect Your Move” education campaign for people who are planning interstate moves. FMCSA's outreach to other audiences—such as truck drivers—has been more limited and all five of the trucking associations GAO interviewed were not aware of such outreach. Without a plan to guide outreach activities, key target audiences may lack awareness of the complaint website, limiting FMCSA's ability to collect motor safety complaints.

Why GAO Did This Study

Large trucks and buses move billions of tons of goods and transport millions of people across the United States each year. FMCSA is responsible for reducing crashes, injuries, and fatalities involving large trucks and buses. One way FMCSA carries out this responsibility is through its complaint website.

The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act includes a provision for GAO to review FMCSA's complaint website. This report examines (1) complaint data FMCSA makes public, (2) control activities FMCSA uses to review complaints, (3) how the complaint website follows leading practices, and (4) user outreach for the complaint website.

GAO analyzed data from the complaint website, reviewed applicable statutes and FMCSA regulations, policy, and guidance, compared the complaint website to leading practices for federal websites, and reviewed FMCSA's actions to promote awareness of the complaint website. GAO also interviewed agency officials and representatives of industry associations.

Recommendations

GAO is making 14 recommendations, including that FMCSA make all categories of its complaint data public as appropriate, update its complaint review guidance, ensure its complaint website fully follows leading practices, and develop an outreach plan for its complaint website. FMCSA agreed with 13 of these recommendations. For the remaining recommendation, FMCSA cited challenges testing the complaint website with external users.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration The FMCSA Administrator should make data on all categories of complaints available to the public, as appropriate, and in line with DOT's Data Management Policy. (Recommendation 1)
Open
When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration The FMCSA Administrator should ensure FMCSA updates its complaint review guidance to define each category of complaint (i.e., ADA, coercion, harassment, hazardous materials, household goods, safety, and other commercial complaints) and link allegations to these categories. (Recommendation 2)
Open
When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration The FMCSA Administrator should ensure FMCSA updates its complaint review guidance to define the characteristics a complaint must have, such as who submitted the complaint and the nature of the incident, to qualify as a motorist complaint. (Recommendation 3)
Open
When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration The FMCSA Administrator should ensure FMCSA updates its complaint review guidance to define the complaint status options and provide instructions on when to use the complaint status and activity type options. (Recommendation 4)
Open
When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration The FMCSA Administrator should ensure FMCSA updates its complaint review guidance to provide clear and comprehensive procedures on how to review all categories of complaints, such as step-by-step instructions or flow charts. (Recommendation 5)
Open
When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration The FMCSA Administrator should ensure FMCSA updates its complaint review guidance to require that key determinations are documented in complaint case files. (Recommendation 6)
Open
When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration The FMCSA Administrator should ensure FMCSA updates its complaint review guidance to require that FMCSA staff and managers enable auto-notifications for complaints for which they are responsible. (Recommendation 7)
Open
When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration The FMCSA Administrator should ensure FMCSA updates its complaint review guidance to require managers to review reports on the status of complaints as part of their oversight of complaint review. (Recommendation 8)
Open
When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration The FMCSA Administrator should ensure the National Consumer Complaint Database website is consistently mobile-friendly. (Recommendation 9)
Open
When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration The FMCSA Administrator should ensure the National Consumer Complaint Database website appropriately targets key audiences, including by defining acronyms and technical terms, and providing more detailed or relevant examples of complaints that may be filed by truck and bus drivers. (Recommendation 10)
Open
When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration The FMCSA Administrator should ensure the National Consumer Complaint Database website contains information that is appropriately accessible for users with limited English proficiency. (Recommendation 11)
Open
When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration The FMCSA Administrator should ensure the National Consumer Complaint Database website has performance standards, such as goals and measures, and that the website is assessed against the performance standards. (Recommendation 12)
Open
When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration The FMCSA Administrator should ensure the National Consumer Complaint Database website is tested with external users on a regular basis. (Recommendation 13)
Open
When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration The FMCSA Administrator should develop an outreach plan for its National Consumer Complaint Database website that aligns with leading practices for outreach. (Recommendation 14)
Open
When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

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Topics

Best practicesTrucksCommercial motor vehiclesCompliance oversightConsumer complaintsDatabase management systemsMotor carrier safetyMotor carriersPerformance measurementTransportationTruck drivers