Working 4 You: Commercial Highway Accidents Can Be a Consumer Crash Course

SEARCY, Ark. – After an accident, drivers typically exchange insurance information and settle repairs based on fault. But when the other driver does not stop, and the responsible party is a commercial trucking company regulated by government officials and state rules, one Cabot woman is learning she has fewer options than she thought.

Little Room for Error

The highway construction zone on 67-167 leaves little room for error. So, it was a close call when a large bundle flew of the truck Krystal Hernandez said was traveling in front of her nearly a month ago.

She was relieved she was alone in the vehicle, instead of having her five children in tow.

"Are you going to go left to a wall or right to a semi? I had to hit it," she said. “It could have killed me. [On any other day,] it could have killed my children. It could have killed the person next to me by me swerving too much or hitting the wall harder than I did.”

She and another driver honked and tried to wave the truck down, but the rig kept rolling. She was able to grab a snapshot featuring the company name and DOT number.

"I didn't realize how important DOT numbers were until I was filling out the report with Arkansas State Police," Hernandez said.

According to Hernandez, and documents from her collision center, preliminary estimates for damage put it at about $4,000 for the body damage. Her insurance encouraged her to see if she could contact the company and get it to accept fault and claim it on the company insurance.

"If he hadn't had his name on his truck - I would have had no idea who it was - no idea ,” she said. “But even having that information didn’t get me very far. I tried the phone number and it would just ring and ring. I posted the picture on Facebook to see if anyone knew a different way to contact the company.”

Trying to Track the Company Down

Over the next two weeks, Hernandez said she tried to call Federal Van & Storage in Searcy, but only got a steady ring. She learned from Searcy city officials that they had the same phone number and no other contact information. Plus, the company’s business license fees hadn’t been paid in 2016 or 2017.

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration showed the company’s interstate authority had been involuntarily revoked in 2012, the same year its insurance was reported canceled.

All of that information left Hernandez leery.

"I have no security within me that something is going to be done," she said.

Hernandez eventually heard from the company owner via phone, and they exchanged emails. But nothing had been resolved, with Hernandez saying the company refused to provide insurance information.

Federal Van & Storage Owner Offers Context Off Camera

So, we stopped in at Federal Van & Storage, because our phone calls to the company also were unsuccessful.

The owner told us the phone line had been cut during a sewage line installation, and that she believed everything was being taken care of with Hernandez.

She declined to go on-camera, but told us that she wanted to avoid filing the incident on her insurance to avoid having her insurance claims go up. She claimed Hernandez had failed to provide complete estimates for the damage, but when she actually had the damage fixed the company would reimburse her.

The owner went on to say that Federal Van & Storage did have insurance, but she could not immediately recall the name of the company, nor could she offer us paperwork at that point to show the policy. She said she wanted to make the situation right, but simply didn’t want to pay thousands extra in premiums.

The owner said health issues, along with a head injury from the year before, prevented her from remembering some details. She admitted that she had failed to pay the business license fees for Federal Van & Storage.

According to the owner, she offered Hernandez $5,000 but wanted Hernandez to get the work done, and then the company would pay. She also asked that her company name be kept out of the story, because she was working with Hernandez. However, Hernandez was frustrated by the weeks passing without a resolution.

"If she doesn't pay the money - there's nothing legally holding her to that," Hernandez said. “And those estimates are just preliminary, based on what they saw in an initial review. There are also struts and suspension issues, at this point. My insurance doesn’t cover a rental car – and it looks like I’ll be without a car for at least a week for repairs. I would have to pay for all of that out of pocket to drive my kids and to get to my jobs.”

Who Regulates Motor Carriers – What You Should Look For

According to the FMCSA website, Federal Van & Storage only has authority to travel inside the state of Arkansas. If that is the case, it is subject to intrastate authority from the Arkansas Department of Transportation.

However, according to ARDOT, the state has largely adopted and codified the regulations that govern interstate drivers (those who drive across state lines in the efforts of commerce) laid out by the federal government. Those regulations require that companies maintain minimum insurance policies, and it also requires that insurance information be made public and provided to citizens who request it at the place of business. (See regulation 49 CFR 387.7 here)

Initially, ARDOT reported that Federal Van & Storage did have an intrastate travel authority permit. However, because of its federal DOT number, its insurance information would be reported to FMCSA.

Again, FMCSA shows no insurance reported as active or pending since 2012. When KARK followed up with ARDOT to confirm that, the details were then in question because the true nature of the business was undetermined.

Federal Van & Storage’s owner told us the company does not operate across state lines, and gave up its interstate authority years ago, voluntarily. However, without being able to say if a company is crossing state lines, officials are unable to say who that operator is subject to.

According to officials, if a company is operating only within Arkansas, then that company would provide proof of insurance at the time it registers the vehicle, similar to in-state, non-commercial drivers. There would be no reporting mechanism through the FMCSA, and no way to verify that the company actually has the insurance required from a public information standpoint, aside from attempting to present at the business and request to see the documents as outlined in federal regulations.

ARDOT’s highway police conduct inspections, both roadside and otherwise, on commercial fleets, and violations are then reported to FMCSA. However, those inspection reports do not indicate whether drivers are asked to provide insurance information nor are there indications on the inspections forms that proof of insurance is provided.

What complicates things more is because DOT numbers are issued federally, even without interstate authority, it is unclear who is actually responsible for regulating these carriers: the feds, the state or both. On the one hand, they are subject to the same requirements as federal regulations under the state permit authority and subject to enforcement by the state. But returns of certifications on violations are supposedly reported to FMCSA.

In Federal Van & Storage’s profile, it shows a list of violations, which included not having truck registration on a vehicle in March 2017.

There were also repeat violations where the same driver failed to produce medical certificates that cleared him to drive a commercial vehicle. There were violations for damaged tie down systems, sagging and cracked frames, among others. All total in the past 7 inspections for the company, all but one resulted in a violation.

The company’s out of service rate, where either the vehicle or driver has been deemed unable to run due to a violation, was twice the national average for its vehicles and three times the national average for driver OOS as of July 27. That rate has since decreased, however no new inspections have been reported as conducted since March 2017.

"I feel like that's the problem with this company,” Hernandez said. “No one has held them accountable for not paying their business license. No one has held them accountable for having insurance proper licensing."

So Many Regulations, So Few Consumer Options

When Hernandez reached out to the city of Searcy, DOT, and local police, there were few options offered to her, aside from filing a complaint that could take weeks to process and putting a claim on her insurance. At that point, she would have to hope the costs could be recovered, and scrape together the money to cover a rental car.

"Who is to say they're going to be held accountable even if I do go through my insurance?" she said. “I work hard. I paid for this car. I paid for my insurance, and I didn’t cause the accident. School time is right around the corner and now I’m having to look at spending money we saved for back to school items to take care of a problem that could have been prevented if this company had been held accountable.”

As mom to five, and working full-time, trying to sort her way through the regulations, who is responsible and the best options has begun to feel like a crash course for Hernandez and her family.

“I guess my warning to other people is to speak out when others are not following the rules,” she said. “I did everything I was supposed to. Do what you can to protect yourself. I was able to get the DOT number; I reported it to police, but I’m still paying the price in stress and anxiety four weeks later. If regulators won’t hold them accountable, we have to.”

According to the city of Searcy, it does have an Ordinance that allows the city to fine businesses that do not pay the annual fees. But those efforts come with court costs to the city and often leave officials going after entities that may or may not pay those fines and fees, as well. According to officials in code enforcement, the city does not have the power to shut down a business for failure to pay those business license costs.

Officials with FMCSA and ARDOT say an investigation into Hernandez’s incident is underway, as well as a full review of the company’s operations. FMCSA officials promised an update when the review and findings were complete.

To follow this story and all of Marci's coverage, click here for Facebook or here for Twitter.

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KARK Working 4 You is committed to highlighting issues that are important to Arkansas. If you have a story that needs to be covered, call Reporter Marci Manley on the Working 4 You Tipline at (501) 340-4448 or email at working4you@kark.com.


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