GAO Calls For More Oversight From FMCSA

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The Government Accountability Office has called for FMCSA to improve its efforts to catch so-called Chameleon Carriers — those who go back to work under a new name after being put out of service.

The Government Accountably Office (GAO), the government’s internal watchdog, has called for the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration to do a better job at catching so-called ‘chameleon carriers’. These carriers, that reapply for operating authority under a different name after being placed out of service, have long been known to flout the regulations. GAO points out that FMCSA already takes action to prevent passenger and household goods carriers from reapplying.


The Government Accountability Office is the investigative arm of the Federal Legislature. It conducts independent studies of various activities of the Executive and reports on the achievements and failures of government agencies. Congress often commissions these probes for committees and other public investigations into government activity.

Chameleon Carriers

FMCSA already conducts background checks on new Passenger Carriers and Household Goods carriers as a part of their consumer protection activities. However, lacking the resources to mirror those efforts to the much larger field of property carriers that applies for authority each year, FMCSA has been unable to stop the problem from growing.

According to the GAO report, in 2005 there were 759 chameleon applications. By 2010 that had increased to 1,136. With programs such as CSA taking more bad carriers off the road the problem is only expected to increase. The GAO also found that 18 percent of chameleon carriers were involved in serious accidents, compared to the much lower 6 percent rate amongst other new carriers.

Enforcement Problems

The GAO criticized the methods that FMCSA uses to monitor new passenger and household goods carriers as being impractical for expansion to the other 98% of new carriers. They also questioned the focus on passenger carriers; those carriers have a much lower rate of fatal accidents tha property carriers.

Criticism was also leveled at the New Entrant Safety Audit program, which only takes rudimentary steps to determine if a carrier is a chameleon or not. The GAO claims that auditors lack guidance on how to interpret information that could reveal if a carrier is a chameleon.
Finally, the GAO was highly critical of a 2010 FMCSA decision that made it unclear if the Agency must use a state or Federal legal standard to determine if a carrier is a chameleon or not. As a result it has become standard practice to reach both Federal and State standards; wasting time and resources.

The Next Steps

The report concludes that the following activities should be undertaken:

  • The Secretary of Transportation should direct the FMCSA Administrator to develop a data-driven, risk-based vetting methodology that incorporates matching and motive components for targeting carriers with chameleon attributes.
  • The Secretary of Transportation should direct the FMCSA Administrator to, using this new methodology, expand the vetting program as soon as possible to examine all motor carriers with chameleon attributes, including freight carriers.
  • The Secretary of Transportation should direct the FMCSA Administrator to periodically evaluate the effectiveness of this methodology using the results of investigations and refine as necessary.
  • FMCSA should strengthen the new entrant safety assurance program audit by developing guidance to the questions contained in the electronic Field Operations Training Manual designed to help the new entrant auditor identify chameleon carriers, including (1) how to use the questions to distinguish chameleon from legitimate carriers, (2) what types of follow-up questions to ask, and (3) what evidence to collect.

Next year’s regulatory calendar is almost certainly going to be a little more full.

Editor: Roxanne Swidrak, Vice President, Operations • 1-800-253-5506 • • Vol. 111, No. 732 • © Foley Carrier Services, LLC. 2011