The nation’s highways can be a dangerous place. A few years back, my colleague Steve Banker wrote an article highlighting a very important loophole protecting impaired truckers that was about to close. The closing of this loophole was a very important step towards highway safety. Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve read about another danger on US roadways: chameleon carriers. I had never heard the term before, but it is a serious issue that needs to be addressed.
Tracking and compliance is a big part of what makes our roadways safe when it comes to trucking. In the aforementioned article, Steve Banker wrote about a glaring loophole that existed when it came to drug and alcohol screening for truck drivers. Essentially, drivers were required to take a preemployment drug and alcohol screening test, along with random tests, which were usually given on a monthly basis. However, if a driver failed the test, or refused to take one, they could simply go to another trucking firm without this information being available. By closing the loophole, motor carriers were required to use the Drug and Alcohol Clearinghouse, which they queried as part of the hiring process.
Chameleon carriers also fall into a loophole where they are able to squeeze through the cracks of the system. For those unfamiliar with chameleon carriers, they are trucking companies that have shut down operations, only to reopen with another name, but the same drivers and equipment. Here is a full description from the US Government Accountability Office. Chameleon carriers are “motor carriers [that] have registered and been operating illegally in interstate commerce by using a new identity in an effort to disguise their former identity and evade enforcement actions issued against them by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA)—the federal agency responsible for overseeing motor carrier safety. Such carriers are referred to as chameleon carriers and may include interstate passenger carriers (intercity and charter or tour bus operators), household goods carriers (hired by consumers to move personal property), or freight truck carriers (shippers of commercial goods).”
The difficulty for government agencies, from a regulatory standpoint, is filtering through the tens of thousands of applications they receive each year to determine which ones are simply reopening an old business under a new name to avoid penalties. What does it take for a trucking company to get shut down? Under the FMCSA’s Safety Measurement System (SMS), violations are assigned a severity weight and are assessed anytime a violation occurs. Safety violations are tracked by the SMS, categorized under the Behavior Analysis and Safety Improvement Categories (BASICs), and added to a score for the fleet the vehicle belongs to. If a fleet reaches a certain number of points, it is flagged and prioritized for intervention by the FMCSA. There are seven BASICs categories—Unsafe Driving, Crash Indicator, Hours-of-Service (HOS) Compliance, Vehicle Maintenance, Controlled Substances/Alcohol, Hazardous Materials (HM) Compliance, and Driver Fitness. Each category has a list of the point values for different types of violations.
The danger with chameleon carriers is that if they slip through the cracks, they are putting dangerous trucks and drivers back on the road. The US Government Accountability Office estimates that chameleon carriers are involved in up to 18 percent of severe crashes, nearly three times the rate of new applicants who are believed to be in compliance with the law. One of the most notable accidents caused by a chameleon carrier occurred in 2008, when Kelly Linhart, a professional truck driver, stopped on the side of the road to do a routine truck inspection. Linhart was struck by another truck driver who admitted to being under the influence of methamphetamines at the time. The driver had a previous record of methamphetamine use yet was hired by a trucking company that had just opened a new business after its previous operation failed to get a satisfactory rating. After Linhart’s death, the company filed to open another trucking company under a different name.
Chameleon carriers have been around for decades, and while the FMCSA is trying to crack down on the practice, it is not an easy task. In 2021 alone, the FMCSA granted 109,340 new carrier authority applications. But with advanced technology, the FMCSA can now use automated risk-based assessments to help identify chameleon carriers. The FMCSA further notes that if it suspects that a truck or bus company has demonstrated a pattern in avoiding regulatory compliance, the agency will suspend or revoke the company’s authority to operate. This information can then be tracked if the owner attempts to set up a new company using the same trucks and drivers. While it is clearly not a perfect system, the FMCSA is taking the appropriate steps to help rid the nations roadways to chameleon carriers.