WRAL Investigates

'Chameleon carriers' create danger on roads

Trucking companies that get into trouble and then try to erase their past by opening up under a new name are linked to serious crashes, thousands of injuries nationwide and even deaths.

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WAKE FOREST, N.C. — Elite Freight Systems, a trucking company based in Wake Forest, was put out of service in 2009 because of troubles on the road. It came right back by adding "Incorporated" to its name and getting a new number from the federal Department of Transportation.

After years of poor performance, the company recently transformed again, into Spurlin Trucking. This time, after repeated questions from WRAL Investigates, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration says "Not so fast."

Studies show these so-called chameleon truckers are three times more likely to be involved in serious crashes. In a five year stretch, they were responsible for accidents that killed 217 people and injured 3,500.

In September 2012, two employees of Elite Freight Systems Incorporated died when their rig blew a tire and ran off the road in Kentucky.

In 2014, a tractor trailer linked to Elite nearly ran a car off Interstate 40 twice in Greensboro. A witness's photos showed the connection.

The woman in the car, according to a lawsuit her husband filed against the company, was so scared she never got back in a car again and died several months later.

"I think it's fair to say they were scared they were going to die," said their attorney, Paul Dubbeling.

Dubbeling is representing Cynthia Doyle's husband in claiming Elite was negligent.

"It started to look like this was not just an accident but the result of a more systematic failure to observe basic safety protocols," he said.

At the time, the company had one of the worst safety records in North Carolina.

Doug Shackelford, a retired member of the State Highway Patrol, who now works as a consultant on trucking safety, pointed to what he called "a lot of red flags."

In 2013, Spurlin Trucking reported two drivers and one truck with an interim DOT registration. That same year records show Elite had 74 drivers and 20 trucks.

In January 2014, Spurlin received a permanent DOT number. Within six months, the company got a letter from the DOT warning about unsafe driving.

By August 2015, records show nearly all of Elite's assets transferred to Spurlin, which claimed 50 drivers and 30 trucks.

"This could possibly be a chameleon carrier," Shackelford said.

He hesitated to pass final judgment on Elite and Spurlin but says the company history warrants investigation.

"If you've got a reincarnated carrier because they're trying to evade some type of fine or have got bad equipment, unsafe drivers, unsafe vehicles, you're putting everybody's life in danger," he said.

In August, the federal DOT got a complaint from someone who accused the company of not caring about DOT regulations and making drivers start routes at night so they couldn't do proper pre-trip inspections. Two months later, when inspectors paid a visit to Elite's headquarters, they found multiple problems, including false reports from drivers, use of vehicles that weren't periodically inspected and multiple on-the-road violations like following too close, speeding and failure to yield the right of way.

Inspectors also found Spurlin operating out of the same Wake Forest location previously used by Elite. A week later, investigators determined the two carriers were in fact the same and ordered them to merge under the Spurlin name. Elite's bumpy history also transferred.

"They're putting everything into one lump category to make the investigation complete," Shackelford said.

WRAL Investigates reached out to the family that runs Elite and Spurlin for reaction to the ongoing investigation. The head of the family, Jeff Salmon, who transferred official ownership to his children years ago, said he was planning to sell the companies and get out of the trucking business.

Dubbeling, the attorney, says a shutdown may be the only solution.
"The company has failed to address the underlying problems. Instead it just seemed to keep switching identification numbers, switching owners but otherwise doing business as usual," he said.

Elite's troubles continued off the road.

The North Carolina Industrial Commission found that Elite had no workers' compensation insurance to cover the two employees killed in 2012 and ordered the company to pay nearly a half million dollars for lost wages and funeral expenses to both of the drivers' families.
The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration would not comment on this specific case because the investigation is ongoing. However, following WRAL Investigates’ initial story in 2012, FMCSA said it was implementing a system to help detect potential chameleon carriers at the time of registration. However, four years later, a fully operational version of that tracking software still isn’t online.


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