Baker bill seeks new rules for commercial drivers
Proposed crackdown follows NH crash, ensuing scandal
JUST UNDER A MONTH after a truck crash that killed seven motorcyclists in New Hampshire, Gov. Charlie Baker filed legislation Friday that he says would enhance safety by keeping dangerous commercial drivers off the road.
The bill aims to accomplish that goal by increasing penalties for repeat bad drivers and requiring trucking businesses to sign up for a system that would alert them whenever the status of one of their drivers changes.
The proposed changes were spurred by what may have been a preventable tragedy. Volodymyr Zhukovskyy, a commercial truck driver from West Springfield with a history of alleged infractions, allegedly killed seven motorcyclists in New Hampshire’s White Mountains in June.
Soon after the crash, state officials realized that the Massachusetts Registry of Motor Vehicles should have suspended Zhukovskyy’s license because of an out-of-state infraction in Connecticut that was never acted on. Erin Deveney resigned as head of the agency after the error was discovered, and since then officials discovered a total of 1,607 drivers who had continued to drive even though their licenses should have been suspended because of out-of-state infractions.
Additionally, the Registry is recruiting a new deputy registrar for safety, and starting Monday will open the search for six new employees to staff a new unit to oversee notifications from other states of driving infractions in those states by Massachusetts drivers. By the end of July, the Registry’s ATLAS computer system that it switched to in March 2018 will begin generating paper notices to other states when Massachusetts takes any action in regard to a driver’s record, according to the administration. The administration also reported that it is now acting more swiftly on mailed-in notifications, and the RMV has suspended 221 Massachusetts drivers based on information from out-of-state since July 1.
The Baker administration has also hired the firm Grant Thornton to conduct a forensic review of what happened. State lawmakers are embarking on their own inquiry into the RMV’s processes.
On Monday, the Transportation Committee will conduct an oversight hearing, and the two co-chairmen – Rep. William Straus of Mattapoisett and Sen. Joseph Boncore of Winthrop – have asked for the attendance of Deveney, Acting Registrar Jamey Tesler, Driver Control Unit Director Keith Constantino, Merit Rating Board Director Thomas Bowes, someone who worked on the ATLAS system, and the leader of the audit underway by Grant Thornton.
The hearing will occur right before a meeting of the Massachusetts Department of Transportation board of directors and the MBTA Fiscal and Management Control Board, where Tesler is scheduled to make a presentation about state-to-state records. On Tuesday, at a subsequent meeting of the MBTA control board, an independent safety panel that includes Ray LaHood is scheduled to give an update about its review of transit safety – which has been called into question by successive derailments and allegations by the T’s former safety chief of problems being swept under the rug.
One focus of Monday’s legislative oversight hearing will be to learn whether the RMV’s past practice of ignoring paper notices about out-of-state driving infractions was part of an even more systemic failure within the agency, according to Straus.
“It’s not just, OK, we’ve identified a specific tragic failure within the Registry that led to what happened, ultimately, in New Hampshire, but are there other similar kinds of potential failures that could lead to other kinds of license review problems?” Straus said. “That’s what I think is more important to know and to have explained in a public setting.”
The governor’s proposed remedy for the RMV safety lapses includes a proposed requirement that every employer who hires commercial drivers sign up for the state’s driver verification system, which Baker said is a “free service that provides automatic notification to employers when an employee’s commercial driver’s license status changes.”
Both the House and Senate have passed similar versions of legislation that would outlaw handheld use of cellphones by nearly all drivers, and a select group is negotiating the final version to be sent to the governor’s desk. The bill that Baker filed Friday would create a stricter regime on handheld devices for commercial drivers by suspending the license of those who text while driving. The current bills would only impose a fine. Baker’s bill would also permanently suspend the commercial license of any driver who used a commercial motor vehicle in the commission of a crime involving human trafficking.Under Baker’s bill, commercial drivers who commit two serious traffic violations within a three-year period would have their licenses suspended for roughly two to four months. Those who commit three serious violations in that length of time would be suspended for a minimum of about four to eight months.
Discussions are also continuing behind the scenes. The Baker administration reported there have been “productive meetings” with the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, the state’s inspector general, and the MassDOT Finance and Audit Committee.