Jan. 17 (Bloomberg) -- Frustrated by unsafe truck and bus operators that evade U.S. orders to get off the road, U.S. regulators are assuming new powers to punish companies and executives that most flagrantly flout safety rules.
Regulations posted today will enable the Transportation Department to revoke a motor carrier’s authority to operate even if its scores on safety audits aren’t low enough to trigger action, according to a summary obtained by Bloomberg News. The rules will let the department target companies whose officers have a history of purposely violating U.S. safety requirements.
The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, which regulates trucking and bus companies, increased enforcement last year after a series of fatal bus crashes on the East Coast involving operators that were allowed to stay on the road after being cited for safety violations.
“We are intent on shutting down bus and truck companies that willfully endanger the public,” FMCSA Administrator Anne Ferro said.
The agency will use the rule “to take stronger action against businesses and individuals that have a history of disregarding basic safety standards,” she said.
The regulation fulfills a requirement of the surface-transportation law passed by Congress in 2012. Safety advocacy groups pushed for the FMCSA to be given more authority and have a clearer mandate to shut rogue operators.
“Bad companies cause a disproportionate number of accidents, deaths and injuries,” said Dan Ronan, spokesman for the American Bus Association in Washington, which welcomed the regulation. “They need to use the resources they have to target the clear troublemakers, and if need be, close them down.”
The U.S. National Transportation Safety Board has criticized the FMCSA for years, most recently in a report in November, for not being tough enough on unsafe operators.
Sky Express, a Charlotte, North Carolina-based company operating a bus that crashed outside Richmond, Virginia, in 2011, killing four people, was doing business even though it was supposed to shut down days earlier for safety violations.
The agency was allowing companies to continue to carry passengers if as they promised to fix their safety violations, promises that often weren’t kept, groups including Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety said.
Advocates worked to get the mandate for today’s regulation into law, Henry Jasny, the Washington-based watchdog group’s vice president and general counsel said.
“FMCSA should use this authority to go after motor carriers that repeatedly and willfully violate safety regulations,” Jasny said in an e-mailed statement. “We will have to see if the FMCSA exercises this power regularly or only sparingly.”
Oversight gaps again came into focus early last year, when a bus carrying Mexican tourists careened down a mountain road in California because the driver couldn’t stop, crashing into a car and a pickup truck on Feb. 3. Seven passengers and the driver died, according to the NTSB.
The FMCSA had given the operator, National City, California-based Scapadas Magicas LLC, a top “satisfactory” rating in a review less than a month earlier. That rating freed the company to carry passengers without restriction, the NTSB said.
No buses were inspected during the review, according to the safety-board report. Many company records also went unchecked because they were in offices in Tijuana, Mexico, not at the site auditors visited.
The bus regulator completed an eight-month sweep of 250 suspect passenger carriers in December. The agency shut 52 companies using specially trained teams that went beyond paperwork checks to interview employees and inspect buses.
Companies were closed from April to November for maintenance failures, insufficient drug and alcohol testing and keeping drivers on duty too long, according to agency data.
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