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.

Additional Materials:

Contact:

Susan A. Fleming
(202) 512-4431
contact@gao.gov

 

Office of Public Affairs
(202) 512-4800
youngc1@gao.gov

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.

By and large, FMCSA does a good job of identifying carriers that pose high crash risks for subsequent compliance reviews, ensuring the thoroughness and consistency of those reviews, and following up with high-risk carriers. FMCSA's policy for prioritizing compliance reviews targets many high-risk carriers but not other higher risk ones. Carriers must score among the worst 25 percent of carriers in at least two of SafeStat's four evaluation areas (accident, driver, vehicle, and safety management) to receive high priority for a compliance review. Using data from 2004, GAO found that 492 carriers that performed very poorly in only the accident evaluation area (i.e., those carriers that scored among the worst 5 percent of carriers in this area) subsequently had an aggregate crash rate that was more than twice as high as that of the 4,989 carriers to which FMCSA gave high priority. FMCSA told GAO that the agency plans to assess whether giving high priority to carriers that perform very poorly in only the accident evaluation area would be an effective use of its resources. FMCSA promotes thoroughness and consistency in its compliance reviews through its management processes, which meet GAO's standards for internal controls. For example, FMCSA uses an electronic manual to record and communicate its compliance review policies and procedures and teaches proper compliance review procedures through both classroom and on-the-job training. Furthermore, its investigators use an information system to document their compliance reviews, and its managers review these data, helping to ensure thoroughness and consistency between investigators. For the most part, FMCSA and state investigators cover the nine major applicable areas of the safety regulations (e.g., driver qualifications and vehicle condition) in 95 percent or more of compliance reviews, demonstrating thoroughness and consistency. FMCSA follows up with many carriers with serious safety violations, but it does not assess maximum fines against all of the serious violators that GAO believes the law requires. FMCSA followed up with more than 99 percent of the 1,196 carriers that received proposed unsatisfactory safety ratings from compliance reviews completed in fiscal year 2005, finding that 881 of these carriers made safety improvements and placing 309 others out of service. However, GAO found that FMCSA (1) does not assess maximum fines against carriers with a pattern of varied serious violations as GAO believes the law requires and (2) assesses maximum fines against carriers for the third instance of a violation, whereas GAO reads the statute as requiring FMCSA to assess the maximum fine for the second.

Status Legend:

More Info
  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: 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.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: 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.

    Recommendation: 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.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: 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.

    Recommendation: 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.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: 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.

    Apr 8, 2014

    Feb 28, 2014

    Feb 12, 2014

    Feb 5, 2014

    Feb 3, 2014

    Jan 31, 2014

    Jan 16, 2014

    Dec 9, 2013

    Looking for more? Browse all our products here