In analysis requested by congressional leaders, the watchdog agency found that while FMCSA's resources are limited it could take steps to identify more "chameleon" carriers that try to get back into the business after being sanctioned for safety violations.
It's a safety issue that has had resonance for some time. The agency started an active screening process for bus companies in 2008 after a crash in Sherman, Texas, killed 17 people. The bus company had been ordered out of service two months before the crash.
In 2009 the agency started a similar vetting process for would-be household goods carriers. The aim there is to screen out applicants that have been sanctioned for defrauding their customers.
The process consists of screening applicant data against poorly performing carriers dating back to 2003, and reviewing each application, a process that can from a couple of weeks to a couple of months.
But these two groups, buses and movers, comprise only 2% of the approximately 66,000 carriers that apply for certificates every year.
GAO acknowledged that the agency does not have the staff to conduct the investigations that would be required to vet all those applicants.
But GAO believes that the agency could use its current data screening methods more effectively to find carriers that are trying to game the system.
GAO said it tested a method that can identify applicants that have chameleon attributes. It wrote an algorithm that searched the data for matching registration information, and for previously registered carriers that had a motive to evade detection, such as a history of safety violations.
GAO said it identified 1,136 new applicant carriers in 2010, an increase from 759 in 2005.
"The carriers we identified as having chameleon attributes presented high safety risks relative to new applicants without these attributes," GAO said. "Through our analysis, we found that crashes involving carriers with chameleon attributes resulted in 217 fatalities and 3,561 injuries from 2005 through 2010."
These carriers were three times more likely than other new carriers to be involved in a severe crash, GAO found.
GAO recommended that the agency develop a system to screen applicant data against carriers that have chameleon attributes, and apply it to all applicants. It also recommended that the agency strengthen its new entrant safety assurance program by training auditors to identify chameleon carriers.
FMCSA said it will implement the recommendations, although it did not say when.
The analysis was requested by transportation leaders in the Senate and House: Sens. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Reps. Tom Latham, R-Iowa, and John Olver, D-Mass.
There is legislation pending in Congress that would strengthen FMCSA's hand in dealing with chameleon carriers. For instance, it gives the agency authority to reject a carrier's application, and levy a fine, if the carrier fails to disclose an ownership relation to another carrier.
The legislation is part of the transportation reauthorization bills in the House and Senate, so it is not clear when it will pass.