Tens of thousands of commercial vehicle operators in Alabama and around the country are issued with USDOT numbers each year. These numbers act as unique identifiers and allow regulatory agencies like the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration to keep track of important safety data, but unscrupulous trucking companies have found a way to skirt the rules. When their safety violations or poor accident histories place their operations in jeopardy, they simply make small changes to their names or corporate structures and apply for new USDOT numbers.
The FMCSA calls these operators chameleon carriers, but the agency has not done very much to stop them. The Government Accountability Office released a report in 2012 that sharply criticized the FMCSA’s policy of only looking for chameleon carriers during the registration process and focusing its efforts almost entirely on bus operators and moving companies. About 98% of USDOT numbers are issued to freight carriers, but these applications receive little or no scrutiny.
A growing problem
When they reviewed FMCSA data, GAO investigators noticed that the number of carriers flagged as having chameleon characteristics rose by almost 50% between 2005 and 2010. They also concluded that chameleon carriers are about three times more likely to be involved in serious commercial vehicle accidents. The issue attracted widespread media attention in 2008 when 17 people were killed in a bus crash in Texas. Accident investigators soon discovered that the bus operator was a chameleon carrier that had been ordered out of service two months earlier.
Stricter regulations are needed
Tractor-trailers can weigh as much as 80,000 pounds, and they can be extremely difficult to control in emergency situations even when their braking systems and safety features are in perfect working order. The regulations trucking companies are expected to abide by were put into place to keep road users safe, but they have little practical value if they can be circumvented by simple paperwork changes. The FMCSA vowed in 2012 to close the loopholes exploited by chameleon carriers, but little has been done to make good on this promise in the decade since.