GAO report shows ‘chameleon carriers’ a major cause of truck accidents

Heavy trucks are a constant presence on North Carolina highways. Most people who encounter these vehicles probably assume that the truck, its driver and the trucking company have all been thoroughly vetted to ensure that they are in compliance with federal safety standards. However a new audit from the U.S. Government Accountability Office shows that this is not always the case.

In its audit, the GAO discovered significant problems with what it calls "chameleon carriers" - trucking companies that are shut down for safety violations, but simply reopen under new names. The vehicles and drivers remain, as do many of the underlying safety problems.

So does their risk of causing a truck accident. According to the GAO, chameleon carriers have a severe crash risk that is three times higher than other new carriers. During a five-year period, chameleon carriers in the United States were responsible for truck crashes that killed 217 people and left another 3,500 injured.

Government not tracking trucking companies

A lot of the problem comes from the fact that the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration does not have the resources or infrastructure it needs to properly track unsafe trucking companies.

Most chameleon carriers follow similar paths - after being ordered to shut down, they choose a new name and apply for a new U.S. Department of Transportation number. Sometimes, the whole process is just a few days long.

Most of these applications slip past the watchful eyes of government regulators. Every year, the government processes more than 66,000 applications for U.S. DOT numbers for passenger buses, moving companies and freight carriers. Despite the known problems with chameleon carriers, 98 percent of freight carriers' applications are not cross-checked against lists of previously shuttered companies.

The FMCSA says it doesn't have the resources to catch chameleon carriers. However, as part of its audit, the GAO was able to create a program that reviewed U.S. DOT number applications for chameleon characteristics. In doing so, it matched application data - like registered agents, addresses and company names - against older records. Then, it looked at whether the older company had a safety-related motive to shut down.

North Carolina chameleon carriers

North Carolina isn't immune to the problem. After the GAO's audit, investigative reporters at WRAL sifted through the data to find potential chameleon carriers registered in North Carolina.

They focused their attention on one company that was shut down in 2009 for being unsatisfactory. However, the reporters found that the company had reopened under a slightly different name and had driven more than 2.2 million miles in the last year alone.

In the last year, the company has had two crashes, including a fatal accident that was reportedly caused by tire failure on one of the company's trucks. In addition, the company's trucks have been ordered out of service after 32 percent of roadside inspections, much higher than the national average of 20.7 percent. All told, the company has had its authority to operate taken away on at least three separate occasions.

Trucking companies have a duty to take responsibility for the safety of their operations. When accidents are caused because of safety violations, injured victims have a right to hold both the truck driver and the trucking company accountable for their actions. If you or a loved one has been injured in a truck accident in North Carolina, talk to an experienced personal injury attorney who can evaluate your case and help you understand your options.