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US states were supposed to improve systems for tracking dangerous drivers. Many still haven’t.

Despite rising roadway deaths and numerous red flags, most states are indifferent to federal calls for reform.

The Massachusetts Turnpike extension inbound to Boston on a Friday in 2019. The commonwealth received an exemption to the NTSB call to action.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff/David L Ryan, Globe Staff

Many of the country’s driver licensing agencies remain indifferent about fatal flaws in interstate communications that allow dangerous drivers to remain on the road, even as roadway deaths reach their highest level since 2005.

Nearly half of state agencies have ignored the federal government’s call to improve the system for tracking problem drivers -- among them, notably, those whose records of serious infractions are unknown in their home state, a Globe investigation found. Driver licensing agencies in 21 states, Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico, have not even responded to the urgent call to address this dangerous gap in data sharing made by the National Transportation Safety Board almost two years ago in December 2020.

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“People lose their lives because of simple bureaucratic inertia,” said Jim Moran, a former US congressman from Northern Virginia, who unsuccessfully proposed licensing reforms in 1998 and 2002 that would have created a national clearinghouse of driver records. “There are lot of [dangerous] people who get behind the wheel because of really lackadaisical effort on the part of the various states to deny them that privilege.”

Moran’s fears were amplified by the Globe’s 2020 investigation called Blind Spot. Globe reporters found that the United States still has no effective national system to keep tabs on drivers who commit serious offenses in another state despite about 50 years of warnings. The Globe identified 14 people killed in recent years by drivers with past violations that should have kept them off the road.

Six of the states that disregarded the federal recommendation — South Carolina, Mississippi, Arkansas, Montana, New Mexico, and Arizona — were among the places with the highest roadway fatality rates in 2020, records show. In May, US transportation officials announced road fatalities across the country hit a 16-year high in 2021.

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The federal transportation board issued its recommendation after examining a 2019 crash that killed seven motorcyclists in New Hampshire, and concluding it was caused by a Massachusetts truck driver with an atrocious driving record. Federal investigators cited Massachusetts’ failure to suspend the driver’s license of Volodymyr Zhukovskyy, 26, a West Springfield truck driver involved in the crash.

In the weeks before the collision, the Massachusetts Registry of Motor Vehicles received two notices from Connecticut to suspend Zhukovskyy’s driver’s and commercial licenses because he had refused a drug test following an arrest for driving while intoxicated. The Registry didn’t act on either warning and a later review found the agency had stopped processing alerts received about out-of-state traffic violations years earlier.

In issuing the safety recommendation, the NTSB found that the shortcomings in Massachusetts are commonplace in many state-run driver licensing agencies.

The Registry scandal led to a series of pledged reforms in Massachusetts. The NTSB noted those improvements in its report on the New Hampshire crash and didn’t call on Massachusetts to revamp its system for sharing information about troubled drivers.

However, the board did urge Massachusetts to set up a process to ensure it made good on its reforms. But again, the Registry in Massachusetts fell short. Officials didn’t respond to the federal government’s request for action until the Globe inquired about it in August.

“While MassDOT didn’t formally send a letter to the NTSB, MassDOT did follow through on the substance of the recommendation to establish metrics, auditing, and reporting,” said MassDOT spokeswoman Jacquelyn Goddard.

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Registrar Colleen Ogilvie submitted the Registry’s response to the NTSB on Aug. 30, outlining how the agency has developed a dashboard to monitor the processing of out-of-state notifications and has instituted regular audits. The state now runs more frequent checks of driver records against a national electronic database that collects information about driver sanctions, but doesn’t send alerts to states about new infractions.

In an interview, former NTSB chairman Robert L. Sumwalt, said states have had more than enough time to act on these public safety dangers.

“It’s disrespectful to all of those who died in this horrible tragic event,” said Sumwalt.

Jackie Gillan, a co-founder of the Truck Safety Coalition, said the state-level indifference is “no surprise to safety groups and families of truck crash victims.”

“The agency and states frequently disregard the recommendations or ‘claim’ they have complied and move on,” she said in an e-mail. “This lack of accountability seriously jeopardizes safety.”

The NTSB’s letter to state agencies said the board “would appreciate a response within 90 days,” though a spokeswoman said the board expects reforms to be implemented within five years. Nineteenstates, including Maine, have finished the task. Nine other states have signaled their intentions with the NTSB. These are seen as signs of progress, but, still, close to half the states have apparently taken no action at all.

NTSB safety specialists consider the replies a “positive response and moving in the right direction,” said Sarah Sulick, the spokeswoman said.

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Moran, the former congressman, is skeptical. Even if states do heed the call, the NTSB doesn’t have enforcement authority to make sure they follow through.

“There’s not much at stake for noncompliance,” he said.

Sulick acknowledged that the NTSB doesn’t have regulatory or enforcement authority, but said its recommendations “come from our deeply researched investigatory work.”

“When entities don’t act on those recommendations and these issues continue to occur, they do have to answer to constituents, stakeholders, the public, etc. on why they haven’t followed them,” she said in an e-mail.

In New England, where the political fallout over the bureaucratic failures was most acute following the New Hampshire crash, the response to the federal directive has been halting at best.

When the Globe first inquired in August, the NTSB’s website said New Hampshire, Vermont, and Rhode Island had yet to submit answers. Officials in New Hampshire and Vermont, however, insisted they had responded months earlier and provided the Globe with copies of letters from 2021 that they said were delivered to the board.

A spokeswoman said the NTSB received responses from New Hampshire and Vermont after the Globe made inquiries. Rhode Island still hasn’t responded to the recommendation, according to the board’s website.

In a letter to the board, New Hampshire Department of Safety Commissioner Robert L. Quinn said the Division of Motor Vehicles has established a system for sharing information electronically about driving infractions with Massachusetts, assigned trained staff to handle its communications with other states, and improved its system for processing driving convictions from the courts.

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Joe Flynn, secretary of the Vermont Agency of Transportation, wrote to the NTSB that the Department of Motor Vehicles is “able to process both incoming and outgoing notifications in a timely manner.”

A New Hampshire jury acquitted Zhukovskyy in August of criminal charges in the fatal crash. His attorneys argued that a drunk motorcyclist lost control and crashed into Zhukovskyy, prompting the carnage. Zhukovskyy’s lawyers acknowledged that he had ingested cocaine, heroin, and fentanyl at his home in West Springfield on the morning of the crash but contended he was not impaired roughly 10½ hours later when it occurred on a rural highway in Randolph.

The criminal trial didn’t examine the failures at the Registry that allowed Zhukovskyy to be licensed, despite his extensive record of infractions, at the time of the crash.


Laura Crimaldi can be reached at laura.crimaldi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @lauracrimaldi.