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How dangerous is that truck behind you?

Written by Steve Gursten Posted August 20th, 2013

Only small number of serious safety violations by  truck companies are detected

dangerous truck

The numbers of unsafe trucks on our roads are staggering.  Each year, experts estimate that the numbers of trucks that are stopped for safety violations are only the tip of the iceberg. Lack of resources, lack of inspectors and enforcement, and the ease with which some of the most dangerous motor carriers can close and restart as “chameleon carriers” are daunting obstacles, as is the sheer volume of trucks out there.  All of this makes monitoring safety compliance extremely difficult for Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA).

Unsafe truck companies and unsafe truck drivers are nothing new. The problem of unsafe truck drivers and motor carriers is a problem as old as the profession itself. In fact, it’s what led to the FMCSA being created. However, a new phenomenon is the recent spike in truck wrecks and the level of destruction and injury involved.

In 2011 (the most recent data currently available), the FMSCA identified over 7 million regulatory violations in the course of its routine roadside inspections.  Of those instances, in about 980,000 cases, the truck driver was placed out of service pursuant to FMCSA regulatory power.

But here’s where it gets even scarier: The American Association for Justice (AAJ) estimates that this figure is only the tip of the iceberg in its recent report, “Truck Safety Alert: The Rising Dangers of Trucks and How to Stop It.”

The AAJ believes that there are more safety violations going on in practice than the FMCSA could ever detect.  One of the biggest reasons is because of so-called “chameleon carriers.” Chameleon carriers are dangerous trucking companies with horrible safety records, that cut corners on safety and believe in a profit-at-all-costs business model. These companies are often punished for safety violations with fines or suspensions. They are either put out of service, or dissolve voluntarily, and then “reincarnate” themselves into a “new” company.  However, this new company consists of the same management, the same dangerous drivers, and the same fleet of neglected transport trucks that continues to go on and cause catastrophic truck wrecks.

Due to the high volume of applications for carrier licenses, the FMCSA simply lacks the resources to investigate every single application looking for dangerous chameleons.  As a result, 97% of all applicant truck companies go unchecked for dangerous chameleons.  Thus, repeat offenders are allowed back in the game to offend again if, and when, their misconduct is detected by the FMCSA.

Another huge challenge is that FMCSA oversight is largely incomplete. For example, the FMCSA Compliance Safety and Accountability Program (CSA), which scores driver safety based on seven factors (called the Behavioral Analysis and Safety Improvement Categories), only has data for approximately 25% of all small fleets operating in the country.  That is only one out of every four small fleets!  Even more troubling is the fact that small fleets are the trucking companies which are more likely to have problem truck drivers.

Finally, the other large challenge suggesting that those seven million violations are just the tip of the iceberg is the sheer size of the trucking industry. The FMCSA has a proverbial “needle in a haystack” scenario on its hands. There are just far too many safety violations to ever hope to detect them all.  There are more than 10 million trucks on the highways.

The economic model  underlying the industry actually provides incentives for bad companies to break the rules, and there are myriad of other forces at play which tempt irresponsible truckers to break the rules, like driving fatigued.

It is naive to believe that the FMCSA is able to detect every violation, or even every hundredth, that occurs.

As an attorney who has successfully litigated hundreds of serious injury truck accidents and bus accidents, I’m all too familiar with the devastation that accompanies these crashes. People get seriously hurt, and sometimes killed, when bad trucking companies or bad truck drivers cut corners on safety.

Knowing that there were 7 million detected safety violations in 2011 is scary.  But knowing that this is just the tip of the iceberg is downright terrifying.

About Steve Gursten

Attorney Steven Gursten is president of the Motor Vehicle Trial Lawyers Association and past president of the American Association for Justice Trucking Litigation Group. He has been named a Michigan Lawyers Weekly "Leader in the Law" for his efforts to prevent truck accidents and promote national truck safety. Steve was also a Michigan Lawyers Weekly "Lawyer of the Year" for a record settlement in a truck accident case. He has received the top reported truck accident jury verdict and top reported truck accident settlement in Michigan for multiple years, according to published year-end compilations of all jury verdicts and personal injury settlements by Michigan Lawyers Weekly. He has been named a "Top 50 Super Lawyer," by SuperLawyers, is listed in Best Lawyers in America, and has been awarded an AV-rating by Martindale-Hubbell, which is the highest rating for legal ability and ethics. Steve speaks to lawyers throughout the country on truck accident litigation. He is a founding member of the Truck Accident Attorneys Roundtable, head of Michigan Auto Law, and has dedicated his legal career to making our roads safer.
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