AJC Watchdog: First Alert

Keeping watch on those who hold the public trust and money

Truck safety records could be hidden by Congress


A bill pending in Congress would block the public from seeing truck companies’ federal safety ratings online – a change long desired by trucking lobbyists who say the rating system isn’t fair.

The online database factored into Georgia’s decision four years ago to wipe out the ability of 19 city and county police departments to inspect big rigs for compliance with federal regulations. Bad inspection scores had the potential to affect a company’s insurance rates, dissuade a shipper from contracting with them, or prompt an audit that could lead to shutting down the company.

Truckers, truck companies and lobbyists for truck companies complained that local departments were being too nit-picky and piling on violations, an investigation published earlier this month by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution found.

If the publicly-available scoring system goes away, though, truck safety advocates will have lost on two fronts in Georgia: No more sizing up truck companies' safety records with a few keystrokes, and about a quarter of the state’s truck inspectors will have been removed from the roads for four years, with inspection numbers steadily decreasing during that time.

(This year, Gov. Nathan Deal moved to spend $10 million adding 60 inspectors back to the roads, which is about 20 less than the inspectors removed by his Public Safety Commissioner in 2011.)

Currently, anyone with an Internet connection can type a company into the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s Compliance, Safety, Accountability, or CSA, database and see where it ranks in crashes, unsafe driving, vehicle maintenance and drug and alcohol violations by drivers.

Take Total Transportation of Mississippi, the company behind the truck that slammed into the tail end of a traffic jam in April, killing five nursing students. Its CSA profile says it ranks in the 86th percentile for unsafe driving, meaning the company ranks worse than 86 percent of other companies in their peer group.

But a section of the $325 billion Surface Transportation Reauthorization and Reform Act of 2015, introduced by a bipartisan group of U.S. House members last week, would block the public from seeing such scores until overhauls are made to the CSA program.

The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee is considering that bill today in a markup session, where members will vote on possible amendments and whether to send the bill to the full House. American Trucking Associations executives reportedly cheered during a management conference earlier this month when U.S. Rep. Bill Shuster, the committee chairman, told them the bill would reform CSA.

While truck companies say the scores unfairly malign them for crashes which might not have been their fault, safety advocates say those concerns are overblown, and Internet users can't interpret raw data on the website without the algorithmic scores. Under the legislation, the ratings could be restored once scoring improvements are made, but some critics are skeptical.

"This bill is a giveaway to the most dangerous trucking companies," said a written statement from Linda Lipsen, CEO of the American Association for Justice, a national organization of plaintiff's attorneys. "Rather than improving safety, this bill lets dangerous truck companies hide their safety records from the public."


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About the Author

Johnny Edwards is a member of the AJC’s investigative team, focusing on the private sector and state and federal regulation. He has worked at the newspaper since 2010.