GAO: FMCSA Falling Short in Making Complaint Data Accessible
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The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration has not designed sufficient controls to help ensure that complaints posted on the agency’s National Consumer Complaint Database website are reviewed, according to a new report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office.
“GAO found that FMCSA makes some but not all of this complaint data available to the public, which is not consistent with Department of Transportation policy,” the GAO report, made public earlier this month, concluded. “As a result, FMCSA may be missing the opportunity to improve transparency and collaboration with industry partners.”
The website is primarily a vehicle for reporting problems with interstate movers, brokers or auto haulers, safety problems observed on the nation’s roadways and problems related to the shipment of hazardous materials. The complaints can be related to safety — for example, speeding or reckless driving — or to problems such as unfair business practices, GAO said.
“Given the upward trend in crashes involving large commercial trucks, it is increasingly important that FMCSA use all available sources to help reduce unsafe vehicles on our nation’s highways,” the report said. “FMCSA’s complaint website is a key tool that the agency can use to collect critical information on motor carrier operations and to foster transparency with the industry and public regarding efforts to meet its safety mission.”
Motor Carrier Operations: Improvements Needed to Federal System for Collecting and Addressing Complaints against Truck, Moving, and Bus Companies https://t.co/cgpLcjZpgV — U.S. GAO (@USGAO) September 19, 2023
GAO said it identified areas in which FMCSA could improve public information, complaint review, website usability and user outreach. Also, FMCSA has not designed controls in its guidance — such as defining certain key terms, ensuring detailed and clear instructions, and requiring oversight activities take place, according to the report.
The report said the number of complaints filed is rising. In 2021, there were 18,300 complaints made on the website compared with 12,000 in 2017.
“FMCSA reviews these complaints, but its guidance is not clear,” GAO said. “Specifically, FMCSA guidance doesn’t define key terms or provide clear instructions for its staff. Improving this guidance could help FMCSA respond to safety and other emerging concerns.”
Ryan Bowley, executive director of American Trucking Associations’ Moving & Storage Conference, said the complaint website is the primary tool for consumers to report moving fraud.
“It’s very important that the database be accessible, easy to use, but also get the right information from consumers so that regulatory agencies and others can act on it,” Bowley said. “The need for agency engagement activity continues to outstrip the resources that are available. Our understanding is that FMCSA is in the midst of a pretty significant redesign of the database and of the submission process.”
Said Elizabeth Repko, director of GAO’s physical infrastructure division, and one of the authors of the report: “One of the places where the agency wasn’t following leading practices is whether or not you can really see the website content on a small screen — a mobile device, which is important, we found, because [FMCSA] told us about half of the users access the complaint website on mobile devices.”
Also, Repko told Transport Topics that GAO has concerns that FMCSA needed to make sure the content was tailored to the audience so it could be understood — free of technical language and acronyms.
The GAO report issued 14 recommendations, all but one of which FMCSA agreed with.
“It seems to me that FMCSA recognized the importance of these recommendations,” Repko said. “That’s something that we see as a positive.”
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Repko added, “But there are certain types of data that we think, if it were public, could be helpful. We talked to industry representatives that told us that they certainly aren’t satisfied with the information that was shared publicly about complaints.”
She said GAO spoke with about 11 industry representatives who said if there was information about trends, that would really be beneficial.
At press time, FMCSA did not respond to a request for comment.
“We largely agree with the [GAO] assessment that’s been done on it,” said Todd Spencer, president of the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association. “Certainly most truckers will tell you that there is no follow-through. We ought to be able to do better. It could be a real resource for addressing highway safety issues.”
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