Senator Edward J. Markey issued a scathing letter Thursday to the federal agency that oversees the trucking industry, citing its “dereliction of responsibility” and demanding that it address widespread safety failures exposed in a recent Globe investigation.
In the letter, Markey asked the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration to explain why it has refused to more strenuously scrutinize nascent trucking companies and enhance the system for background checks of commercial drivers.
“Given the FMCSA’s loophole-ridden and patchwork system of accountability, it is no wonder that the commercial trucking industry is increasingly deadly for all users of the road,” wrote Markey, a member of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation. “I believe that your agency’s failures go well beyond financial or personnel constraints and appear to represent a dereliction of responsibility."
Other members of the Massachusetts congressional delegation have also recently pressed the FMCSA to address gaps in its oversight and do more to prevent roadway crashes, a leading cause of death in the nation. Several lawmakers also want to advance legislation that would allow states to tap federal funds to improve communication between state licensing agencies, which regularly fail to act on warnings and to flag drivers' out-of-state convictions.
“People are dying across our country because of this problem,” Representative Seth Moulton told the Globe. “You know, this isn’t the days of the Pony Express here, folks. There’s no excuse for this.”
The gaps in oversight have allowed for companies like Westfield Transport, the West Springfield trucking business that hired Volodymyr Zhukovskyy, a young driver with a litany of arrests and road violations. Zhukovskyy, 24, is accused of causing a crash that killed seven motorcyclists in Randolph, N.H., on June 21, 2019. He has pleaded not guilty and is expected to face a trial next year.
On Wednesday, the National Transportation Safety Board released investigative documents that show the company had no safety plan or drug-testing program, employed another driver with a suspended license, and falsified records to appear to comply with federal regulations governing how long drivers can work. One company official admitted to lying to investigators, a federal crime.
The tragedy also led to revelations of bureaucratic neglect at the Massachusetts Registry of Motor Vehicles, which failed to act on two notices from Connecticut to suspend Zhukovskyy’s license.
Published in late August, the Globe’s “Blind Spot” series revealed that government negligence has for decades allowed drivers with menacing traffic records to remain on the road. The series described a regulatory system full of loopholes, finding that one in five of the more than 4 million commercial trucks regulated by the FMCSA is in such disrepair that if stopped by safety inspectors, it would immediately be taken out of service.
In his letter, Markey asked the FMCSA to provide detailed statistics about its oversight and enforcement actions against individual trucking companies, as well as industrywide safety statistics. He cited federal statistics that show an estimated 48 percent increase in crash fatalities involving large trucks from 2009 to 2019, calling the trend deeply disturbing.
The FMCSA released a statement Thursday saying it had yet to receive Markey’s letter, but pushed back on his criticism.
“The Agency’s top priority is always to reduce crashes involving commercial motor vehicles, and any suggestion otherwise is inaccurate and unfounded,” its statement said. “FMCSA works with its state partners to complete more than 3.5 million annual truck and bus inspections and conduct as many as 15,000 safety investigations of interstate motor carriers annually, placing a priority on high-risk carriers.”
The agency said recent improvements include the implementation of electronic logging devices and an enhanced drug and alcohol screening program. The FMCSA also said it had previously considered one proposal highlighted by Markey and concluded it wouldn’t be effective.
The FMCSA’s acting administrator, James “Wiley” Deck, is the third person to direct the agency since October 2019.
Just last week, the inspector general for the Department of Transportation wrote in a report that the FMCSA faces “key safety challenges," including the ability to identify troubled, high-risk trucking and bus companies.
The Globe’s investigation documented how the FMCSA, with approximately 1,200 employees, is dwarfed by the industry it regulates, a sector of half a million companies that is growing by more than 30,000 businesses annually. And despite repeated pleas from the NTSB, the agency doesn’t require companies to prove that they understand and comply with safety regulations before granting them authority to operate.
Cathy Chase, president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, said in a statement that the Globe’s investigation showed rogue motor carriers are “easily evading enforcement because of systemic agency ineptitude.”
“Truck drivers and all motorists deserve better — and better is available, affordable and accessible,” said Chase, whose group has lobbied for increased oversight, as well as technology upgrades and safeguards. “The agency needs to stop sticking its head in the sand and start doing its job."
Markey also inquired Thursday about whether states are complying with federal rules for warning each other about troubled drivers. The Globe reported last month that more than half of states miss deadlines for notifying other jurisdictions when drivers with commercial license get suspensions or convictions.
Congresswoman Lori Trahan, a Westford Democrat, said the country’s “laissez-faire approach to oversight of the trucking industry simply isn’t working,” and the lack of action by FMCSA has “led to dangerous increases in fatalities that could have been prevented.”
“Leaving the trucking industry to regulate itself has failed,” she said in a statement. “Congress has an obligation to step in and demand that the FMCSA conduct serious oversight to save lives.”
Trahan cosponsored legislation with Moulton that would let states use federal grant money to improve communication between licensing agencies. The United States doesn’t have a national system that tracks drivers who commit serious offenses in other states.
House lawmakers passed the provision in an infrastructure bill and included it in transportation legislation to be debated next year, Moulton’s office said.