WRAL Investigates

'Chameleon' truckers creating dangerous driving conditions

Posted October 29, 2012

WRAL Investigates

— Dangerous drivers who get their licenses taken away can’t go to the Department of Motor Vehicles and get another one, but that’s not the case with some of the biggest and most dangerous vehicles on the road.

The WRAL Investigates team found that troubled trucking companies can shut down, change their name, apply for a new U.S. Department of Transportation number and get back on the road, sometimes within days.

While the government is increasingly cracking down on unsafe busing companies, it routinely fails to do background checks on trucking companies’ applications.

On May 11, 2011, four people died and dozens were injured when a Charlotte-based tour bus ran off Interstate 95 in Carolina County, Va. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration immediately shut down the company, Sky Express. Within days, the company came back to life under new names – 108 Tours and 108 Bus. Federal officials immediately closed those companies as well. 

The federal government receives about 66,000 applications for U.S. DOT numbers each year from passenger carriers, moving companies and freight carriers. However, 98 percent of those applications – for freight carriers alone – are not cross-checked, which can allow troubled trucking companies to shut down and start back up almost immediately.

A new federal audit by the U.S. Government Accountability Office shows companies with what it calls “chameleon attributes” are three times more likely than other new carriers to be involved in a severe crash. The government calls them chameleon carriers because, though they may change names, the vehicles and drivers on the road stay the same.

During a five-year period, chameleon big rigs were involved in crashes that killed 217 people in the U.S. and injured more than 3,500 others, according to the audit.

“By ignoring safety rules, these operators put both passengers and other motorists’ lives at serious risk, and shutting them down will save lives,” U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said in 2011.

Auditors identified potential chameleon carriers by matching application information, such as company name, registered agent, phone number and address. Then, they looked at motive, such as whether the older carrier had safety or money issues.

Auditors said very little is being done to catch them.

Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration officials say they don’t have the resources to catch chameleon companies. However, auditors were able to create a cross-checking program for their study. The WRAL Investigates team decided to do the same and analyzed hundreds of trucking company records.

It didn’t take long to find a company that raised questions. In April 2009, Elite Freight Systems, on Ponderosa Service Road in Wake Forest, was given an out-of-service order for being unsatisfactory. However, U.S. Department of Transportation records show Elite Freight Systems Inc., a slightly different name with the same address, drove more than 2.2 million miles last year.

U.S. DOT officials say Elite's original company was never reinstated. However, Elite Inc.'s recent record shows two crashes this year, including a fatal crash that killed an Elite driver and his passenger in Cadiz, Ky., on Sept. 23.

'Chameleon' truckers creating dangerous driving conditions 'Chameleon' truckers creating dangerous driving conditions

Tire failure reportedly caused the crash that killed Joseph A. Robinson, 34, of Wendell, and Larry D. Artis, 55, of Wilson, according to a preliminary investigation by Kentucky State Police.

The federal records regarding what happened in Elite's other crash this year have not been released.

“We probably want to look at this,” said Captain Doug Shackelford, who leads the state Highway Patrol's motor carrier enforcement. “It is a safety concern. Once you place a vehicle out of service for an imminent hazard, that vehicle should not operate.”

The WRAL Investigates team went to Elite Freight System Inc.’s address and talked to property owner Jefferson Salmon. He said he canceled his authority in Elite so he could turn over the company to his children.

“We didn't do anything to try and dodge the (U.S.) DOT. I told them what we wanted to do, and they agreed,” he said.

Salmon still works in the same office at the same address. After a history of safety violations, the family wanted a fresh start, according to his son, Jeffrey Salmon. They parked the older trucks and replaced them on the road with leased trucks while still using the same trailers.

"We were trying to solve a problem, not getting around something," Jeffrey Salmon said.

The problem is the newly named company has been hit with some of the same old violations. During roadside inspections, its trucks were pulled out of service nearly 32 percent of the time, and inspectors put the brakes on Elite drivers almost 10 percent of the time. Both numbers are well above the national average of 20.7 percent for vehicles and 5.5 percent for drivers.

Elite Freight Systems Inc. has had its operating authority revoked three times, but has gotten it reinstated each time. The WRAL Investigates team found other potential red flags – multiple trucking companies tied to that same Ponderosa Service Road address or other members of the Salmon family, all of whom received out-of-service orders.

“Identifying a chameleon carrier can be somewhat difficult,” Shackelford said.

The state Highway Patrol uses the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration database, but so far, cases aren't routinely flagged at the federal level. That leaves potholes in a system that's supposed to protect those who share the road with 18-wheelers.

“It’s the ones that cut corners. Safety should always be first,” Shackelford said.

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration declined to answer specific questions for WRAL Investigates' story. Instead, the agency released a statement, saying it "has taken aggressive efforts to strengthen motor carrier safety and enforcement."

"The Agency asked for and was granted greater authority under the recent transportation bill that strengthens its ability to crack down on chameleon characters by establishing a single national standard that eliminates the loophole allowing bus and truck companies that have been shut down for unsafe operations to reincarnate themselves," the agency said in a statement.

That system is not yet operational.

19 Comments

This story is closed for comments. Comments on WRAL.com news stories are accepted and moderated between the hours of 8 a.m. and 8 p.m. Monday through Friday.

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  • JustOneGodLessThanU Nov 6, 9:45 a.m.

    @MartyKing, I’ve driven over half a million miles in my lifetime and the only* time that I have seen trucks “blocking both lanes of traffic on the freeway” is to keep those dangerous (and rude) drivers from passing when the lane ends ahead and then cutting in front of trucks who leave a safe following distance. Are you one of *those* people?

    *Ok, I did witness trucks performing a rolling road block on Washington D.C.’s beltway in the early 1980’s. They were protesting the lowering of the speedlimit and they just drove the **speedlimit** for about 30 minutes. All the speeders were lined up behind them for miles...crying (to the police) that these trucks were keeping them from breaking the law. WAAAHHHH !

  • JustOneGodLessThanU Nov 6, 9:37 a.m.

    @dunn, would you drive a car where the tires have the steel belts showing through?

    We are responsible when we drive a vehicle...to take prudent measures to make sure the vehicle we drive is safe. Police can ticket you if your brake lights are out, your tires are unsafe, etc. *You* get the ticket, not the vehicle owner. Guess why.

    That said, if there is something unsafe that is not "reasonably knowable", like brakes that always fail after using them 15 times in 3 minutes...THEN the driver might have a case against the vehicle owners IF it can be proven that the owners even knew about the condition.

  • bullrod002 Nov 5, 7:19 p.m.

    dunnn, and a couple more of you don't have your facts straight. The truck in which Joe and Larry were killed in was owned by Advantage leasing and rented by Elite. Who knows what happen in Kentucky,......not Tennessee. The report says maybe tire failure and now they say there were skid marks, before there was none. I know 2 good men died and the people left behind have no one else to blame. The comment that says they were crooks 40 yrs. ago,.....you know so much behind this computer,....have you ever not been payed for what you hauled if you hauled for them or maybe they would'nt load your wore out truck. People comment when they nothing of whats going on really. I've dealt with them for 40 years and never have worried about my pay from them when I did my job right. Happy trails to you all.

  • Marty King Oct 30, 7:00 p.m.

    Truckers are always causing problems on the roadways... anywhere from rude driving by blocking both lanes of traffic on the freeway to parking wherever they please on our streets.

    When they are too busy to be rude, they are causing accidents and hurting innocent motorists. We really need to step up enforcement of these disasters.

    One thing we need to do is hold them accountable for these retreads they are littering our highways with. These things cause damage to our cars and cause accidents because truckers are too lazy to pick them up. Why not ban retreads altogether?

  • cpdtg Oct 30, 4:26 p.m.

    Those people in Wake Forest at that address have been involved in shady deals for 40 years I have been atrucker since 1971 and they were crooks then

  • dunnn Oct 30, 2:58 p.m.

    What ignorant comments on this site. My friend just bured her husband of two years last week. He died from driving this trucking company faulty trucks. Two men died and this trucking company was able to change their names after failing regulation requiremnents and stay on the road bad trucks and all. It was clearly the truck company fault and not the driver. two men died becasue of bad tires both from knightdale accident happen in tennessee

  • JustOneGodLessThanU Oct 30, 1:12 p.m.

    Conservatives are right. This is just more Big Government interference and regulation that reduce corporate profit!

    When will this insanity come to an end? When will business be allowed to self-regulate?

    /sarcasm off/

  • herinbonetwil Oct 30, 12:36 p.m.

    The article failed to mention that a lot of our Politicians,their families and friends are in the trucking business, hence lax laws.

  • Damien Thorne Oct 30, 12:19 p.m.

    "Despite what the trucking industry will tell you, from what I've seen a lot of truckers are dangerous/bad drivers, with tailgating and speeding. If it were up to me, there would be more restrictions on them in the passing lane, and they'd have a lower speed limit like there was back in the 70s during the gas crisis. If that means higher transportation costs passed on to consumers, so be it."-----mountain_luver

    How about use a little common sense, there are thousands of trucks on the road daily that are not dangerous or driving dangerous trucks. The small percentage that does should not reflect upon the industry as a whole. My company deals with 30 trucks a day from multiple companies. Most of them are responsible owners/operators.

    How much more are you willing to pay for your desire to regulate them even more, when this article exposed that the regulations are being ignored and not enforced as they should be? Why not make DMV and DOT enforce them instead?

  • mountain_luver Oct 30, 11:36 a.m.

    Despite what the trucking industry will tell you, from what I've seen a lot of truckers are dangerous/bad drivers, with tailgating and speeding. If it were up to me, there would be more restrictions on them in the passing lane, and they'd have a lower speed limit like there was back in the 70s during the gas crisis. If that means higher transportation costs passed on to consumers, so be it.

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