The National Transportation Safety Board on Tuesday delivered a blistering critique of the country’s trucking regulator and the Massachusetts Registry of Motor Vehicles, saying egregious failures within these agencies set the stage for a fiery June 2019 crash that killed seven people in New Hampshire.
Over the course of about three hours, the five-member board outlined bureaucratic neglect within state and federal government, saying failures allowed an unscrupulous West Springfield trucking company to flourish and employ a troubled driver who had no business being behind the wheel.
The truck driver, 24-year-old Volodymyr Zhukovskyy, was high on cocaine and heroin, which he believed had been laced with fentanyl, when he crossed the center line last year and crashed into a pack of motorcyclists from the Jarheads Motorcycle Club, the NTSB said. The board’s investigation determined his impairment led to the crash in Randolph, N.H.
“What we saw in this case was egregious,” said NTSB chairman Robert L. Sumwalt.
Even more troubling, Sumwalt said, was that the regulatory shortcomings exposed in the wake of the crash are commonplace throughout the nation’s driver’s licensing system.
“There are systemic issues that need to be corrected,” Sumwalt said. “People should be flabbergasted that this has been able to happen.”
The NTSB meeting follows a Globe investigation published in August that exposed how government negligence has for decades allowed drivers with menacing traffic records to remain on the road. The reports also cited loopholes rampant in the trucking industry’s regulatory system.
In October, US Senator Edward J. Markey wrote a letter to the nation’s trucking regulator, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, citing its “dereliction of responsibility” and demanding that it address safety failures detailed in the Globe investigation.
On Tuesday, NTSB vice chairman Bruce Landsberg also took aim at the FMCSA.
“The more we look into this, the more their regulations look like Swiss cheese,” he said.
An FMCSA spokesman said the agency will review the NTSB’s recommendations, but didn’t offer further comment.
The NTSB, an independent federal agency responsible for transportation accident investigations, also expressed misgivings about the operations of state motor vehicle agencies nationwide.
The board noted that the Massachusetts RMV had failed to act on two warning notices from Connecticut to suspend Zhukovskyy’s license before the crash. The board recommended state licensing agencies nationwide review their procedures for processing out-of-state violation notices.
Following the hearing, a Massachusetts RMV spokeswoman said the NTSB’s findings support the state agency’s hopes of a centralized, federal system for exchanging driver violation notices.
“This report reinforces the inherent public safety risks in states relying on paper notifications for communications regarding out-of-state events or sanctions,” said Jacquelyn Goddard, a spokeswoman for the Massachusetts Department of Transportation.
Amid this backdrop, the NTSB said, a trucking company cut corners and hired Zhukovskyy.
The board found Westfield Transport’s safety problems emerged soon after it completed a probationary program required by the FMCSA of industry newcomers. After clearing that hurdle, Westfield Transport quickly expanded its operation and began accumulating safety violations. The FMCSA sent Westfield Transport a warning letter and classified the company as a “moderate risk,” but the business still found ways to shield itself from scrutiny, according to the NTSB.
Westfield Transport hired Zhukovskyy two days before the New Hampshire crash.
The company’s vice president, Dunyadar Gasanov, told investigators he knew Zhukovskyy had been convicted of drunken driving, but said the company didn’t give him a pre-employment drug test because the loads he was hauling weren’t heavy enough to trigger that mandate.
Westfield Transport also didn’t contact Zhukovskyy’s former employers, including a nearby trucking company that had fired him weeks earlier, after he flipped a tractor-trailer in Texas.
Gasanov and his brother, Dartanyan, who owned the company, told investigators they believed Zhukovskyy was a knowledgeable driver because they had watched him successfully load automobiles on a trailer, fill out a log book, and drive 3 miles to a gas station.
“I should add more of my procedures,” Dunyadar Gasanov told an NTSB investigator. “Hopefully, [this] would be [a] big lesson for all the country, to be honest with you.”
The NTSB investigation also revealed Westfield Transport 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.
Dunyadar Gasanov admitted to lying to investigators during one interview, a federal crime, according to the NTSB.
A woman who answered a telephone number for the company Tuesday declined to comment. The business ceased operations after the crash.
The federal investigation also found evidence that Westfield Transport shared drivers and vehicles with more than a dozen companies, raising concerns that the businesses were trying to circumvent oversight by the FMCSA.
The company first sought Zhukovskyy’s driving record an hour after the crash, and then asked its insurance broker to add him to the business’s policy, the NTSB found.
The board criticized the FMCSA for declining to issue an order that would have put the company out of business on the grounds that the violations it discovered had no bearing on the collision.
“That in itself is nonsensical,” Sumwalt said.
The NTSB concluded Westfield Transport demonstrated “substantial disregard” for safety regulations and recommended the FMCSA impose more oversight on new trucking and bus companies that have recently completed the probationary program.
US Representative Lori Trahan of Westford said the hearing revealed widespread failures by the FMCSA and she urged Congress to act.
“The consequences of the agency’s negligence are fatal,” she said in a statement. “This is a clear-cut case in which the FMCSA did little to stop Westfield Transport from blatantly flouting regulations meant to save lives so they could cut corners to put a driver with a long record of dangerous and even intoxicated driving on the road.”
Zhukovskyy, who had a litany of arrests and road violations, is charged with negligent homicide and other offenses and has pleaded not guilty. He is expected to face a trial next year.
After the crash, Zhukovskyy told investigators he had taken drugs earlier in the day, but believed he was “fine and OK to drive” at the time of the collision, NTSB records show. His lawyers have argued that an independent analysis showed that one of the motorcyclists was legally intoxicated and was the one who hit the pickup and caused the crash. The NTSB disagreed with that claim, finding that Zhukovskyy was at fault in the crash. The NTSB concluded his drug use was the “probable cause” for his actions.
Killed in the collision on June 21, 2019, were: Albert “Woody” Mazza Jr., 59; Daniel Pereira, 58; Aaron Perry, 45, and his girlfriend, Desma Oakes, 42; Michael Ferazzi, 62; and Jo-Ann and Edward Corr, both 58, a married couple from Lakeville, Mass.
The NTSB also used the hearing to restate its recommendation that all states require adults wear helmets while riding motorcycles. Investigators found 12 of the 18 riders and passengers were wearing helmets that complied with federal standards and one wore a helmet that didn’t conform with regulations. New Hampshire is one of three states that do not require adult motorcyclists to wear helmets.