The nation's top trucking regulators said Wednesday that their agency is moving to prevent companies that have been shut down for repeated safety violations from staying in business by changing their names, a recurring problem in the industry.
The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration is upgrading its screening of applicants seeking to operate trucking companies, agency officials said. It has proposed rules to replace three independent application systems with a single, more easily monitored site. And the agency plans to ask Congress to give it greater authority to shut trucking companies that try to dodge safety requirements, officials said.
Their comments come after the agency closed down Hanover-based Gunthers Transport LLC last month for being an "imminent hazard" to the public. The Baltimore Sun reported that the owner's son set up a new company using the same address and almost identical phone number. The motor carrier agency also shut that company, Clock Transport LLC.
"The practice of unsafe carriers quickly reincarnating as chameleon carriers to continue operations is unacceptable," said agency Administrator Anne Ferro. "We are constantly doing everything under our current legal authority to keep one step ahead of these illegal actors. That is why we took swift action to shut down Clock Transport soon after shutting down their unsafe sister company, Gunthers Transport. It is also why we are urging Congress to take action to close the reincarnation loophole once and for all."
Meanwhile, public safety advocates, union officials and crash victims went before a congressional subcommittee Wednesday to support a proposal to strengthen one safety rule governing the industry: the limit on the number of hours truck drivers can spend on the road.
The rule, proposed last year by the Obama administration, would cut from 11 to 10 the number of hours truckers may spend driving a route. Federal regulators told a congressional panel Wednesday the lower cap would curtail crashes with trucks in cases where drivers fall asleep behind the wheel.
In the case of Gunthers Transport LLC, federal inspectors checked company drivers more than 200 times over the past two years and found them to be unfit for driving 15 percent of the time. Clock Transport was closed after one of its drivers was cited by Ohio inspectors for exceeding the 11-hour limit and driving a truck with defective equipment.
Mark David Gunther, owner of Gunthers Transport and an earlier company, Gunther's Leasing Transport, served 30 months in federal prison in the 1990s after a jury convicted him of falsifying drivers' logbooks and lying about it.
Last year, Susan Slattery, a Stevenson University professor, was killed and her two sons severely injured when the driver of a triple tractor-trailer fell asleep at the wheel and plowed into the back of their car on Interstate 90 in Ohio.
"We don't call it an accident in our house, because it wasn't an accident," said her husband, Ed Slattery of Cockeysville. "It wasn't quite on purpose, but it was foreseeable — and it shouldn't have happened."
One of their sons, Matthew Slattery, 14, remains in a wheelchair after spending six months at Kennedy Krieger Institute. He suffers from aphasia, an impairment of language caused by head injuries and strokes. In an emotional news conference, he nodded as his father apologized for "talking about you in front of you" as he explained his son's prognosis. "Are you OK with this?"
In a statement Wednesday, the Richmond, Va.,-based trucking company involved in the accident said its driver had been on the road for less than 10 hours.
"Sadly, the proposed changes to hours of service regulations would not have prevented this accident," Curtis Carr, a vice president at Estes Express Lines, said in a statement. "It was a tragic accident caused by human error."
Before 2003, truckers could drive up to 10 hours in a 15-hour window. The Bush administration increased the cap to 11 hours for drivers who had at least 10 consecutive hours of down time before their shift started. Public Citizen and other advocacy groups sued to overturn the regulation. Though the groups were successful on technical grounds, the agency was able to address the court's concerns but still maintain the 11-hour cap.
There were 3,380 large-truck crash fatalities nationwide in 2009. The motor carrier administration said 1.5 percent of them were related to truck driver fatigue. Speaking at a hearing of the subcommittee on regulatory affairs, Ferro estimated that 50 lives would be saved each year if the 10-hour limit were adopted.
But a group of freight companies and food retailers told the subcommittee the number of fatal crashes has fallen in recent years and said the rule could cost nearly $1 billion annually in lost productivity.
"It's a tragedy whenever there's a fatality on our highways," said Sean McNally, a spokesman for the American Trucking Associations. "If there was compelling evidence that the types of changes being advocated for here would make the roads safer, we would be leading the charge."
The industry group predicts the rule would add at least 115,000 trucks to highways to make up for the lost hours required to haul the nation's freight.
"I understand the concerns of the trucking and retail industries, but we cannot ignore the fact that thousands lose their lives and are injured by truck drivers each year," said Rep. Elijah E. Cummings of Baltimore, the top-ranking Democrat on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.
The panel conducting Wednesday's hearing is part of the oversight committee.
Some Republicans in Congress, including House Speaker John A. Boehner, have urged the White House to forgo the new rule, which is under review by the Office of Management and Budget. They say that such regulations could harm the nation's fragile economy.