Lawyers who specialize in helping people injured in truck accidents have known about unsafe trucking companies known as “chameleon carriers” for years. These are truck companies and busing outfits that try to hide from their dismal safety records and often deadly crash history by shutting down and then re-opening under different carrier names. This allows them to game the system and hide safety records by obtaining a new name and a new USDOT number.
Sadly, these unsafe trucking companies have caused an inordinate number of preventable wrecks, but until recently there has been very little that federal and state regulators could do to stop this dangerous practice.
That’s starting to change, however, and the hunt to stop these dangerous chameleon carriers has begun in earnest, as WOOD TV of Grand Rapids demonstrated in a recent story that focused on one unsafe trucking company operating out of Lansing, Michigan. Disclosure: I met with Susan Samples in Grand Rapids to discuss the issue of unsafe chameleon carriers and have corresponded by email with her while she was investigating this story.
In her February 15, 2018, story, “Feds fight unsafe ‘chameleon’ trucking companies,” WOOD TV’s Target 8 Investigator Susan Samples reported:
I realize the FMCSA appears to have “cleared” the trucking company of being a “chameleon carrier,” but, as the saying goes, if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck …
As an attorney who has handled over 300 truck accident cases – both for injured motorists and truckers – this report is harrowing but also welcome news. Yes, it’s horrible to see that chameleon carriers are out there, putting everyone’s lives at risk on our roads. But I already knew that. Now, hopefully thanks to Susan and her story on chameleon carriers in the trucking industry, thousands of people in West Michigan now know about it too. Shining the spotlight on this dangerous practice can only help to raise public awareness and push our safety regulators to do more to stop this.
And speaking of safety regulators doing more, what has been so infuriating to me for years has been the FMCSA’s head-in-the-sand approach towards chameleon carriers. We saw a glimpse of this in the WOOD TV story. Despite evidence that this trucking company is clearly unsafe, the federal safety agency whose mission “is to reduce crashes, injuries and fatalities involving large trucks and buses” somehow convinced itself there was “no evidence” that the owner was trying to evade safety regulations by repeatedly closing businesses with bad safety records and, then, re-opening the same trucking company under a new name.
Here’s how I describe these dangerous trucking companies:
Here’s a description of “chameleon carriers” from the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO)’s March 2012 report to Congress, “Motor Carrier Safety – New Applicant Reviews Should Expand to Identify Freight Carriers Evading Detection”:
In its 2012 report, the GOA reported:
The GAO explained that “chameleon attributes” meant that a carrier: “[S]ubmitted registration information that matched information for a previously registered carrier”; and, “[t]he previously registered carrier had a motive for evading detection,” such as “a history of safety violations” or a “bankruptcy that might motivate a carrier to become a chameleon carrier.”
In its analysis of FMCSA data, the GAO found:
The FMCSA’s hunt for “chameleon carriers” officially began after an August 2008 fatal bus crash in Sherman, Texas involving a chameleon carrier which killed 17 people. The carrier had been ordered out-of-service just two months prior by the FMCSA.
Immediately thereafter, the FMCSA began its “Vetting Program,” which is a “dedicated process to identify and prevent chameleon carriers from applying for and receiving operating authority.”
Although the “Vetting Program” was initially limited only “to bus companies (passenger carriers) and movers (household goods carriers),” it now includes freight carriers, too.
As of 2016, the program incorporates “an algorithm and corresponding software” which conduct “an automatic risk-based assessment that calculates a risk potential based on the likelihood that an applicant for operating authority [i.e., a trucking company that wants to operate in interstate commerce] is a chameleon carrier, is attempting to reincarnate, or is attempting otherwise to receive authority illicitly.”
(Sources: U.S. Government Accountability Office’s March 2012 report to Congress, “Motor Carrier Safety – New Applicant Reviews Should Expand to Identify Freight Carriers Evading Detection”; Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, “Utility for Risk-Based Screening and Assessment (URSA),” Updated January 8, 2018)