Nation?s Commercial Truck System Dangerously Insecure and Unsafe

Oct. 10, 2001

Nation?s Commercial Truck System Dangerously Insecure and Unsafe

Chronic Failures of Federal Government Have Led to Few Key Safety Rules

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Because of chronic failures by the federal government, the country?s commercial motor carrier transportation system is so insecure that a large loss of life could occur if Congress doesn?t act promptly, Public Citizen President Joan Claybrook told lawmakers today.

In testifying before the Senate Subcommittee on Surface Transportation and Merchant Marine, Claybrook painted a picture of a system in which it is alarmingly easy to get a license to truck hazardous materials, in which truck drivers can mask a criminal record, where they receive little training before they step into a large rig, and where it is far too easy for dangerous cargo to be trucked across U.S. borders.

Many of the shortcomings can be traced to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration and its predecessor in the Federal Highway Administration, which failed year after year to enact dozens of regulations ordered by Congress. This irresponsible lack of oversight and inadequate regulation of the motor carrier industry is particularly ominous in light of the terrorist threat under which Americans now live, said Claybrook, who testified on behalf of Public Citizen and Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, a coalition of consumer, health, safety and insurance groups on whose board Claybrook serves.

“The federal agency overseeing trucks has dragged its feet for years on installing the kinds of safety nets needed to help shore up our system,” Claybrook said before testifying. “While this has always been unacceptable, the urgency to address this untenable situation is even stronger now. The government?s failure to act now can help those intent on mass destruction achieve their goals. We simply can?t let this continue.”

In her testimony, Claybrook said that:

It is far too easy for a person to obtain a commercial driver?s license (CDL) to operate a truck or bus in interstate commerce, or to haul hazardous materials. Those applying for CDLs take a perfunctory, written test and a minimum on-road skills test, and many drivers learn how to handle rigs solely through on-the-job training. Applicants in many states who take a test for a commercial driver?s license are not required to have any instruction, do not need much driving experience and can obtain a license that has no restrictions. The FMCSA should institute mandatory driver entry-level training for those seeking to obtain a commercial driver?s license.

It is far to easy for a trucking company to obtain operating authority to open shop. The FMSCA awards new operating authority to motor carrier applicants without examining the records of the drivers employed by the company, the operating history of the company or the quality of its management and equipment. After opening, the company can be in business for 18 months without a safety review.

Despite a congressional mandate in 1994, the U.S. Department of Transportation still has not established basic safety information that new or prospective employers must seek from former employers during the investigation of a driver?s employment record. In light of published reports that suspected terrorists have obtained licenses to haul hazardous materials, the FMSCA should issue a rule requiring criminal background checks for applicants for commercial driver?s licenses and security investigations for those who seek to transport hazardous materials.

Unless Congress enacts the Senate-passed legislation authored by Sens. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) and Patty Murray (D-Wash.), a trucking company on Jan. 1, 2002, will be able to set up shop in Mexico and transport goods into and through the United States for 18 months before the United States conducts a safety review of the company. Under Murray-Shelby, which Public Citizen strongly urges Congress to enact, the United States would conduct on-site safety evaluations of Mexico-domiciled carriers before granting them operating authority. Further, border inspections of freight and passenger transportation would also be beefed up. Records indicate that an overwhelming majority of Mexico-domiciled trucks don?t comply with U.S. rules for transporting hazardous materials.

U.S. law grants extensive exemptions for the transport of hazardous materials for agricultural purposes. Rules for shipping papers, placarding, emergency telephone numbers and hazardous materials training are waived for the transport of materials within 150 miles of a farm. Certain chemicals also are exempt from the rules if transported below designated quantities. The idea was to reduce the burden on farmers, but Congress should re-examine these exemptions because they allow the transport of significant quantities of volatile materials with no strings attached.

Rules outlining travel routes for the transport of non-radioactive hazardous materials are inadequate because they allow large quantities of dangerous materials to be driven through major cities and neighborhoods. Routes should be changed to avoid cities, and hazardous materials trucks should be equipped with Global Positioning Systems so they can be continuously tracked.

There is no national database of information about the number of hazardous materials shipments, the quantity of what is transported, its nature, its exact origins or its destinations. Such a database must be established.

The federal government wants to open a high-level nuclear waste repository in Nevada. This would require huge quantities of radioactive waste to be trucked through neighborhoods and cities in 43 states — greatly increasing the threat of a terrorist attack in an urban setting.

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