Truck firm linked to crash under review

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration said it has an "ongoing" compliance review of Hester Inc., the Alabama trucking company involved in the March 26 crash on Interstate 65 that killed 11 people.

And in another development on Friday, the federal agency issued a new rule that will require some interstate commercial truck and bus companies to install electronic onboard recorders to monitor the number of hours drivers work.

Under federal regulations, a commercial truck driver can't drive for more than 11 hours per shift and can't be on duty for more than 14 hours.

The rule was proposed long before the Hart County crash, but the accident brought renewed attention to onboard recorders.

The driver of the tractor-trailer, Kenneth Laymon, 45, of Jasper, Ala., crossed the median near Munfordville and slammed into a van, killing 10 people and himself, Kentucky State Police said. The others who died were Mennonites traveling to a wedding in Iowa. Two young children survived the crash.

It's not known what caused the crash, but the National Transportation Safety Board is looking into whether the driver fell asleep, was impaired or suffered a medical condition that caused him to lose control. The NTSB said Friday the investigation is continuing.

Hester's has had at least 13 drivers' violations for driving too many hours during the past 30 months, according to the FMCSA.

Shashunga Clayton, a spokeswoman with the FMCSA, said compliance reviews are typically done in all fatal crashes. The review includes a look at the driver's hours of service, vehicle maintenance and inspection, driver qualification, controlled substance and alcohol testing, and compliance with licensing requirements.

She couldn't estimate how long it will take to complete the review.

"It varies" depending on the size of the fleet, Clayton said. "It will last a couple of weeks, that's for certain. It may depend upon how soon we get their records, how organized that carrier is."

A man who answered the telephone at Hester's office in Fayette, Ala., on Friday said representatives of FMCSA were there on March 26 and on Monday. He would not identify himself, but said the company's fleet has about 35 vehicles.

A compliance review focuses on the carrier's safety management controls, operational performance and compliance with federal regulations.

Once a compliance review is finished, "we could rate that company as satisfactory, unsatisfactory or conditional," Clayton said. "If they are found unsatisfactory, they are not allowed to continue their operations until we find them back in compliance."

Upon an unsatisfactory rating, the FMCSA will impose an "Operation Out of Service Order" that would prohibit the company from operating any motor vehicle in the U.S. unless the carrier demonstrates the review contains errors.

The FMCSA gave Hester Inc. a "deficient" rating of 88.4 in February based on inspections of the company's 30 drivers during the past 30 months. The agency uses a scale of 1 to 100, with 100 being the worst score.

The rule about electronic onboard recorders announced Friday would apply to those companies with the most serious patterns of violations regarding hours of service. Nearly 5,700 interstate carriers will use the recorders after the rule's first year of implementation, FMCSA said.

"We are committed to cracking down on carriers and drivers who put people on our roads and highways at risk," said Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood in a news release. "This rule gives us another tool to enforce hours of service restrictions on drivers who attempt to get around the rules."

The recorders are devices attached to commercial vehicles that automatically record the number of hours drivers spend operating the vehicle. Driving hours are regulated by federal rules, which are designed to prevent vehicle-related crashes by prescribing on-duty rest periods.

Under the rule issued Friday, carriers found with 10 percent or more hours-of-service violations during a compliance review will be required to install recorders in all their vehicles for a minimum of two years.

The American Trucking Associations announced support for the rule "because it provides incentives for safe carriers to voluntarily adopt use of the devices and mandate the devices for severely non-compliant carriers," said spokesman Clayton Boyce.

"This is a good example of the important role of technology in enhancing driver, vehicle and highway safety," Boyce said.

But the co-founder of Road Safe America, an organization that seeks safer highways, said the rule doesn't go far enough.

"We're disappointed that the rule isn't much broader," said Steve Owings, co-founder of Road Safe America. "There are roughly 750,000 trucking companies in this country, so simple math tells you that will affect less than 1 percent."

Under the new rule, carriers that voluntarily adopt recorders will receive relief from some of the FMCSA requirements to retain hour-of-service supporting documents, such as toll receipts used to check the accuracy of driver logbooks.

The rule will go into effect on June 12, 2012, to ensure recorder manufacturers have sufficient time to meet performance standards and make products to meet industry demand.

Recorders cost between a few hundred to a few thousand dollars per unit, said Todd Spencer, executive vice president of the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association. That doesn't include ongoing costs to provide global-positioning tracking on the devices.

"This won't make that operator's job more efficient or more productive. It won't make it safer," Spencer said. "This is a pretty expensive device to simply add because of a government whim."

The NTSB first advocated the use of onboard recorders in 1977.

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