UPDATED -- The National Transportation Safety Board has sharply criticized the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration's oversight processes in light of several deadly crashes that the board investigated, saying the findings from these investigations raise serious questions about the oversight of motor carrier operations and is recommended audits of the agency’s oversight processes.

The NTSB also opened the investigative dockets, including more than 2,100 pages, from four recent commercial vehicle accidents resulting in 25 deaths and 83 injuries. In each accident, investigators identified safety deficiencies and noted red flags that had been present prior to the crashes but were unnoticed or were not acted upon by FMCSA regulators until after the crashes, says NTSB.

"While FMCSA deserves recognition for putting bad operators out of business, they need to crack down before crashes occur, not just after high visibility events," said NTSB chairman Deborah A.P. Hersman. "Our investigators found, that in many cases, the poor performing company was on FMCSA's radar for violations, but was allowed to continue operating and was not scrutinized closely until they had deadly crashes."

The NTSB says it found concerns with both the thoroughness and quality of FMCSA's compliance reviews and their increasing reliance on focused compliance reviews, which examine only a limited portion of the commercial operation. NTSB is issuing two safety recommendations to the Department of Transportation calling on it to conduct audits on these oversight activities and to address any problems uncovered by the audits.

The NTSB is an independent federal agency charged by Congress with investigating every civil aviation accident in the U.S. and significant accidents in other modes of transportation, such as railroad, highway, marine and pipeline.

The American Trucking Associations used the announcement by NTSB to reiterate its earlier stances calling on FMCSA to mandate electronic logging devices in commercial trucks and to improve its Compliance Safety Accountability fleet safety monitoring and measurement system.

“NTSB’s finding that a truck driver in a fatal crash, and many of his co-workers, routinely carried two log books is unacceptable and would have been prevented by the use of a mandatory electronic logging device,” said Bill Graves, ATA president and CEO. 

 ATA also highlighted NTSB’s recommendations regarding how the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration identifies and investigates potential problem carriers.

“FMCSA must improve its CSA program to better identify carriers more likely to be involved in future crashes,” said ATA Chairman Phil Byrd, president of Bulldog Hiway Express, Charleston, S.C. “We look forward to the forthcoming Government Accountability Office and DOT Inspector General CSA audit reports and hope they emphasize the need to ensure that the program accurately measures crash risk and focuses on unsafe fleets,”

Highlights of NTSB Sited Crashes

In Elizabethtown, Ky. on March 2, a commercial truck operated by Highway Star, a motor carrier based in Troy, Mich., was traveling northbound on Interstate 65 at about 67 mph when it approached slowing traffic ahead. Despite a straight roadway, with a clear line of sight, the truck driver did not brake until just prior to colliding with the rear of a 1999 Ford Expedition. Upon impact, the Ford burst into flames, and six of its eight occupants died as a result of the crash.

According to NTSB, FMCSA had completed an oversight review of Highway Star five days before the crash. It was a focused, non-rated compliance review that did not examine records related to driver compliance with hours-of-service regulations. FMCSA conducted this focused review, rather than a full compliance review, even though each of the prior reviews of the company had found driver-related violations, and the carrier had a longstanding history of driver hours-of-service violations.

Following the March 2013 crash, FMCSA completed a full compliance review of the motor carrier, which resulted in an "unsatisfactory" rating. It then, post-crash, issued an "imminent hazard" out-of-service order to Highway Star for not monitoring driver hours of service, permitting drivers to falsify records of duty status, and failing to preserve records of duty.

In Murfreesboro, Tenn. on June 13, 2013, a truck operated by the Louisville, Ky.-based carrier H&O Transport, collided with eight other vehicles that had slowed in the eastbound traffic lanes of Interstate 24. The collisions caused two fatalities in a passenger vehicle that overturned and was consumed by fire, as well as injuries to six occupants of other vehicles involved in the crash.

The driver was in violation of the hours-of-service rules at the time of the accident and had numerous previous violations, according to NTSB. In addition, several other drivers had similar violations, many of which the FMCSA was aware through roadside inspections and previous compliance reviews.

Despite H & O Transport's history of hours-of-service violations, FMCSA only conducted a "focused" compliance review in 2011, which was "non-rated" and allowed the motor carrier to operate. Following the accident, a post-crash compliance review conducted by FMCSA rated the carrier as "conditional" which again allowed them to continue to operate.

The two other crashes cited by NTSB involve motor coaches. 

Update adds reaction from ATA.