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Chameleon Carriers: Highway Dangers You May Never See Coming

Monday, Mar. 19th 2018

By Michael Leizerman

When it comes to government regulations and public safety laws, most trucking companies do their best to comply. After all, they can’t make money if their trucks—and the goods they transport—aren’t allowed on the roads. Yet, there exists a subset of commercial carriers that choose to skirt the law by changing their identity, and they threaten the safety of those who share the road with them in the process.

Known as “chameleon carriers,” these trucking companies use loopholes in the system to shut down their operation and then re-open under a different name and a new USDOT number—thereby allowing them to effectively “reset” their safety record. While ethical issues abound, the main problem with chameleon carriers is that they’re three times more likely to be involved in a crash that causes a severe injury or fatality—that’s when compared to other “new” applicant carriers.

Until recently, there wasn’t much that could be done about these chameleon carriers simply because government agencies such as the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) could not realistically vet each new applicant—often in the tens of thousands each year—to make sure they had not been previously operating under a different name. In March of 2017, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) even released a study that urged the FMCSA to revise their methodology by which they judge new applicants in order to offset insufficient information gathered via carrier inspections and records of reported violations. Additionally, the current screening process used by the FMCSA doesn’t look at the individual safety records of each applicant, one aspect that some Congress members would like to change in 2018.

So how widespread is the problem of chameleon carriers in the U.S.? According to FMCSA data, the number of “known” carriers to have reopened under a new name rose from 759 in 2005 to 1,136 in 2010—an almost 50 percent increase in just five years. To combat this increase, the FMCSA is employing newer tactics such as software that uses a risk-based algorithm to determine the likelihood that the applicant has had previous safety issues under a different name. While certainly an improvement to the vetting process, there’s no denying that violators do slip through the system. For example, in September of 2017, two brothers were indicted in a Utah district court for creating at least 12 different carriers with other people’s names during the period between 2009 and 2012—all in an effort to evade their checkered safety history.

The GOA points out that an improved vetting is a positive step, but more could be done to keep shady carriers from doing business and their unsafe drivers from driving on our nation’s roads. To put this threat into perspective, the state of Ohio conducted 87,000 truck inspections in 2016 that resulted in 18,000 trucks ordered off the road. That’s 21 percent—or one in every five trucks—that are deemed too dangerous to drive. A number that is just too high by any standard.

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