A West Plains trucking company is at the center of a growing national uproar over interstate safety following a fiery crash last month that killed a young woman at an upstate New York restaurant.
Federal records show a troubled history for the company, Quality Relocation Services Inc. of Airway Heights, and for one of its trucks, a 12-year-old red Peterbilt that careened out of control June 20 and smashed through the front of a historic building in downtown Ithaca, New York. The truck’s previous owner, the now-defunct Auto Star Transport Inc. of Spokane, also had a troubled safety record.
In October 2012, for example, a roadside inspector in Western Washington found the brakes on the Peterbilt were in such poor condition that it needed to be pulled off the road, according to records maintained by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, part of the U.S. Department of Transportation.
Brakes again were the deciding factor in an inspector’s May 2013 order sidelining the rig from service until repairs were made.
In September, an inspector south of Detroit checking the same truck also ordered it off the road because of brake problems. Twelve other violations were recorded at the time as well.
And then last month, the same red truck careened down East Hill Road in Ithaca at 40 to 50 miles per hour, striking the historic building housing Simeon’s restaurant, killing 27-year-old Amanda Bush.
Truck driver Viacheslav Grychanyi, 37, of Spokane, was issued tickets for a defective brake limiting device and for an over-length vehicle. He has pleaded innocent.
Meanwhile, the safety records of the two trucking companies tied to the red Peterbilt were among the worst for all trucking companies in the nation in the 24 months before the crash, according to history reports compiled by federal trucking regulators.
Now, trucking safety advocates say the downtown Ithaca crash raises questions about the federal enforcement program designed to keep roadways free of unsafe drivers and trucks.
“We’re wondering why this company and this truck were still operating,” said Henry Jasny, vice president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, a group based in Washington, D.C.
The Airway Heights company did not respond to several requests for comment about its safety record.
Federal records, based primarily on roadside inspections, show that 99.6 percent of the nation’s comparable trucking companies had better records for safety than Auto Star Transport over the past two years. In January, the U.S. Department of Transportation revoked Auto Star’s operating authority for lack of proof of insurance.
Over the past two years, Auto Star Transport had been cited by government inspectors for 110 violations of regulations related to truck driver safety – including false log books, speeding, making improper lane changes, disqualified drivers and violations of hours-of-service limits.
“This is precisely the kind of company that they’re supposed to be targeting and going after to ensure that they either correct the problems or stop operating,” Jasny said.
In the vehicle maintenance category, Auto Star Transport had poorer records than 79 percent of comparable companies, federal records show.
In late 2013, the red Peterbilt truck involved in the fatal June 20 crash stopped operating under the auspices of Auto Star Transport and began making shipments for Quality Relocation Services, according to inspection reports. Auto Star Transport’s corporation registration was dissolved this spring.
Federal records show Auto Star Transport had 11 trucks and 32 drivers. Quality Relocation Services has three trucks and eight drivers. The two companies have much in common.
Dmitriy Zhelez, who signed the dissolution paperwork for Auto Star Transport in April and was listed as its vice president, is the registered agent for Quality Relocation Services and co-owns the 1.8-acre parcel where it is located, according to state and local government records in Washington.
As of the end of May, 98.9 percent of the nation’s comparable trucking companies over the past two years had better track records for safety than did Quality Relocation Services, according to the federal data.
John Lannen, spokesman for the Arlington, Virginia-based Truck Safety Coalition, said the close ties between the poorly rated trucking companies raise questions about government oversight.
A 2012 report by the Government Accountability Office, the congressional watchdog agency, criticized the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration for failing to detect “chameleon carriers” – where a troubled company creates a new corporate existence to wipe away its previous track record.
Federal policies generally call for the agency to intervene when an operator’s violation rating reaches a certain level in a particular category. For unsafe driving violations, the threshold for intervening is when a company’s rating is worse than 65 percent of similar operators. Both Washington companies hit about 99 percent – far beyond that threshold.
The first step is a warning letter, and ensuing steps can go as far as revoking a motor vehicle carrier’s operating authority.
Agency spokesman Duane DeBruyne would not answer questions about past enforcement actions against Quality Relocation Services or Auto Star Transport, or whether any actions are pending as a result of the crash.
“I am unable to comment, as the crash investigation is ongoing,” he said, noting that the agency is involved in the investigation in Ithaca and Washington state.
Rob Abbott, vice president of safety policy for the American Trucking Associations, said federal regulators have enough resources to conduct full audits on only 3 percent of the nation’s approximately 500,000 motor vehicle carriers each year.
He said a new enforcement program implemented by the agency in 2008 is too focused on compliance for its own sake, rather than pinpointing the few carriers most likely to cause crashes.
The agency noted that the number of violations has decreased since the program began.
“That may be true, but there’s been an increase in crashes since the program’s been initiated,” Abbott said. “I think that we have to acknowledge that the true objective here is to prevent crashes.”
Others say the new system has provided better transparency about companies and drivers with violations to the industry and the public, and allowed for a more systematic analysis of crash-prone companies.
“I think that from a regulatory standpoint, the FMCSA has gone from telescope to microscope,” said Gary Petty, president of the National Private Truck Council. “They’re able to target their resources based on real data and go after those companies that are the worst violators.”
Lannen, of the Truck Safety Coalition, agreed the government has the information it needs. The next step is to take action against problematic operators. “The fact is there’s a large number of high-risk carriers they’ve identified,” he said, “and they need to go after them and pursue them.”