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Before 2019 crash killed 7 bikers, RMV wasn’t adequately trained on new system to track troubled drivers, IG says

In July 2019, people gathered at a memorial at the site in Randolph, N.H., where seven motorcyclists died in a collision with a truck driver with a troubled record.Paul Hayes/Associated Press

The agency at the center of the Registry of Motor Vehicles’ tragic lapses in 2019 had never received “adequate” training on new software the RMV installed to process driving infractions — its essential task — in the year before a fatal crash exposed widespread failures in the state’s tracking of troubled drivers, state investigators found.

The Office of the Inspector General, which detailed the finding in a report released last week, did not say that the lack of training at the Merit Rating Board contributed to the Registry’s failure to suspend the license of Volodymyr Zhukovskyy, the West Springfield trucker who authorities say later crashed into a pack of motorcyclists in June 2019, killing seven. Inspector General Glenn A. Cunha’s office’s review, it wrote, “does not encompass the causes” behind those mistakes.

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But the breakdown highlights another dimension of the dysfunction at the Registry before the fatal crash pushed it into crisis and, ultimately, forced state officials to overhaul how the RMV handles alerts about law-breaking drivers.

The report also provided a deeper level of detail on where training fell short, illustrating how even nearly two years after the crash, officials are still pinpointing problems that had plagued the agency. State officials have since “committed” to regular staff training, investigators wrote in their report.

Once an obscure division that processed in-state driving citations, the Merit Rating Board leapt into focus in 2019 after RMV officials admitted it had stopped processing notifications on drivers sent by other states more than a year earlier. The decision, which officials said was made after the state had started using a new software system, added to what had already been decades of lapses in staying on top of the alerts, a state-ordered probe found.

The Internal Special Audit Unit under Cunha, which has been reviewing the Merit Rating Board since 2019, said in its report that as the RMV transitioned to the new software in early 2018, employees received only the “same customer-service-oriented training as all other RMV employees.”

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“The RMV did not provide [Merit Rating Board] staff with tailored training on how to process motor vehicle citations, which is an essential function that the MRB performs,” Cunha’s office wrote. The report described the training as “introductory-level” and primarily directed at employees at RMV branches.

Other units at the Merit Rating Board, including those handling quality control and payments for civil motor vehicle infractions, also did not receive training that “was tailored to their functions,” Cunha’s office wrote.

A spokeswoman for the Department of Transportation, which oversees the Registry and the Merit Rating Board, said the agency has trained and “continues to extensively retrain” existing and new employees on the software, known as ATLAS, as recommended by Cunha’s office. That includes giving staff additional training in the fall of 2019 before the Registry implemented a new version of the system.

And investigators said they’ve seen vast improvement. The Merit Rating Board, which now handles only in-state citations, is processing them within two business days, and a backlog of 22,000 unresolved items that the quality control unit was handling has been eliminated.

The Registry also created a dedicated unit after the crash to process all out-of-state notifications. Last April, it installed a new permanent head of the Merit Rating Board after firing its previous director in the summer of 2019.

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A lack of training at the Registry has surfaced in other reviews examining its failures, though Cunha’s report appeared to be the first to flag where it fell short within the Merit Rating Board itself.

The Registry had failed to act on alerts it received in late May about Zhukovskyy, who had refused to take a chemical sobriety test in Connecticut. The paper and electronic notifications from Connecticut should have resulted in Massachusetts suspending his license.

An audit performed by the professional services firm Grant Thornton found that a worker in a different Registry unit had accessed Zhukovskyy’s record weeks before the crash, but closed the file after just seven seconds. The employee later told investigators that he took no action against the then-23-year-old truck driver because he had never been trained to.

A subsequent report from the firm said that employees in focus groups said job-specific training at the Registry was “lacking.”

Zhukovskyy has pleaded not guilty to criminal charges. Federal investigators alleged he was high on cocaine and heroin, which he believed had been laced with fentanyl, when he crossed the center line and crashed into a pack of motorcyclists from the Jarheads Motorcycle Club in June 2019.

Last month, a grand jury in Massachusetts indicted the leaders of the trucking company he worked for on federal charges.

A state-ordered audit of the Registry in 2019 found that officials had failed to exercise basic oversight and were so consumed with improving customer service that they pushed aside or outright neglected the behind-the-scenes work intended to keep unsafe drivers off the road.

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That included an intense focus within the Baker administration on how quickly Registry branches could turn over customers, which officials dubbed the “War on Wait Times,” the Globe previously reported.

The Department of Transportation’s own auditors told a state-hired firm that the pressure was so intense to slash wait times that employees were “being threatened with their job to get wait times down.” Governor Charlie Baker’s aides denied that officials had made such threats.


Matt Stout can be reached at matt.stout@globe.com. Follow him @mattpstout.