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The Hunt for Chameleon Carriers

Data Blocks
Data Blocks

A chameleon carrier is one that attempts to avoid the consequences of safety violations by closing down and then reopening, or “reincarnating”, as a legally separate entity. They have also been referred to as “zombies” for their ability to seemingly come back from the dead. But whatever they’re called, these carriers can be dangerous. By definition, they have a history of unsafe practices and they prefer to compound the problem by using legal judo to hide rather than simply fixing the way they do business.

According to the U.S. Government Accountability Office, chameleon carrier drivers collectively were responsible for a total of 3,561 injuries and 217 deaths from 2005 to 2010. These drivers are three times more likely to be involved in major crashes than the employees of companies that treat their business and safety responsibilities seriously. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMSCA) is vetting carriers to find businesses evading regulated safety standards.

According to rules adopted in 2012 and 2014, placing the zombies out-of-service is already FMSCA’s policy. Thanks to these two rules, the agency has both a clear, legal definition of chameleon carriers and the authority to identify them, consolidate their safety violation histories, and shut them down. But as the name implies, chameleons can be hard to find. Although FMSCA has been vetting new applicants for the highest risk categories—passenger service and household goods carriers— allotting time and budget to search through the records of all new carriers has proven to be a challenge.

As a countermeasure, the FMCSA is developing a process to automatically flag new carriers that might be operating as chameleons. The FMCSA partnered with the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) to work with their web-based interface containing the necessary data warehousing capabilities known as the Hazmat Intelligence Portal (HIP).

The prototype screening methodology can run in the HIP environment during its development and testing phases. The resulting prototype method was named ARCHI, for Application Review and CHameleon Investigation. Its process is to first compare each new carrier to older carriers for similarities in name, ownership, and other criteria. Each new carrier then gets a score based on how closely it matched older businesses. Those that score above a certain cut-off are then evaluated for motive—did the older company declare bankruptcy? Did it have outstanding safety violations or fines? Was it previously placed out of order or was it involved in a serious crash?

Carriers that match older companies that had a motive to reincarnate can then be evaluated manually.

Those ultimately found to be chameleons can be shut down. ARCHI was initially tested using data from known chameleon carriers and proved effective at flagging suspicious companies, although the tests also identified areas of needed improvement. From there, the system entered a multi-year process of study and improvement and was scheduled for full implementation last year. Even so, identifying chameleon carriers remains serious business. Individuals who are caught operating reincarnated businesses do not always obey subsequent disciplinary action and can either ignore orders or simply start yet another chameleon operation. In such cases, individuals have faced prison sentences.

A fully implemented, industry-wide automatic vetting process, can serve as an important tool for hunting down zombie carriers and ultimately keeping America’s roads safer.

*About the Author- Sid Nair is the Senior Director of Transport and Compliance at Teletrac Navman, and serves as an expert in GPS tracking software and hardware for the transportation sector around the globe. He focuses on how technology can help trucking and private fleets be safer, more efficient and compliant with federal and state regulations.

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