The Armstrong family never knew what hit them. Edward was behind the wheel of their car with his wife, Melissa, next to him and ten-year-old daughter and six-year-old son in the backseat. Traffic was choked to a near standstill on the stretch of Interstate 81 in Tennessee. But one driver apparently didn’t notice the approaching snarl.
Nasko Nazov, an illegal immigrant from Macedonia, didn’t hit the brakes in time and his tractor-trailer plowed into two idling vehicles, one of them the Armstrongs’ car. No one in the family survived the horrible crash.
Adding to the senselessness of the tragedy, officials soon learned that Nazov had been driving his truck with a bogus commercial driver’s license (CDL). The suburban Chicago resident had obtained false documents claiming he was a resident of Wisconsin (where he took his driver’s test) and had gotten help from a translator on the answers to a written exam. In 2006, Nazov was sentenced to four years in prison.
In recent years, 32 states have reported cases of commercial license fraud, with busts ranging everywhere from Florida to Ohio to Colorado. A 2006 report from the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) identified about 15,000 “suspect” license holders in 27 states, over a third of whom ultimately had their CDLs taken away or voluntarily gave them up.
In Macon, Georgia, according to an investigative report by the Chicago Tribune, one truck-driving school paid private “third party” testers to falsify the exams of 623 students. When Georgia officials uncovered the racket and had all those students retake the test, only 142 qualified.
According to safety advocates, there are probably tens of thousands of truckers on the road with sham licenses. It’s bad enough that we’re sharing the highways with these risky drivers. But there are huge homeland security concerns too. After all, some truckers who get phony licenses may wind up hauling deadly chemicals or other hazardous materials that could be used as terror weapons.
Industry representatives point out that the overwhelming majority of their drivers (and there are about 1.5 million on the road at any given time) are hard-working and responsible. “We have a very strong safety agenda,” says American Trucking Associations spokesman Clayton Boyce. Clearly, however, more trucking companies need to examine credentials for signs of fraud. Nasko Nazov’s Wisconsin address was the same one used by other Illinois residents applying for CDL certification.
It’s no mystery why licensing scams are an increasingly bigger problem. Since 1980, the number of interstate trucking firms has ballooned from 20,000 to 564,000, thanks largely to deregulation of the industry.
These companies have drawn more and more people to their relatively lucrative jobs — paving the way for shady operators to move in. Often, the culprits are private testers hired by overburdened states to certify truck drivers. One case involving an immigrant driver shows how it can work.
In July 2003, Kenneth Kerr was taking his wife, Janet, and three children from Wilson’s Mills, North Carolina, to visit relatives in western Pennsylvania. As the Kerr family made their way along Route 8, a 16-ton tractor-trailer driven by Ejub Grcic came barreling down an intersecting road and plowed into the Kerrs’ car, setting it ablaze. Janet and the children were trapped inside and burned to death. Kenneth died later in a hospital.
Investigators said Grcic had been speeding and had run a stop sign before the crash. A check of his credentials led to Utah, where Grcic, a Bosnian who could barely speak English, had received his CDL. It turned out his skills had been certified by one of three companies contracted by the state to administer driving tests to truckers.
While the feds never proved definitively that Grcic had bought his credentials, they did uncover that the firms were willing to certify a trucker’s driving skill for a payment of anywhere from $500 to $1,500. A few hundred more dollars bought the answers to a written test.
Even more disturbing are cases in which the scams are run by the very people who are supposed to be protecting us. In Illinois, state officials sold hundreds of phony licenses to unskilled drivers, including immigrants who couldn’t read or speak English and people who flattened orange pylons in driving tests.
The fraud came to light after a driver who knew little English failed to understand radio warnings from passing truckers that part of his tailpipe assembly was loose. The pieces flew off and were run over by a van, piercing the vehicle’s gas tank. The van exploded into flames, killing six children of a Chicago minister. Investigators determined the trucker had bought a sham license from the state. So had another driver who killed ten people in a 2004 Texas highway crash. The probe went all the way to Illinois governor George Ryan, who was imprisoned last year on corruption charges.
Unbelievably, only 11 states automatically notify trucking companies when their drivers are cited for a driving violation — the rest leave it up to the drivers to tell their boss the bad news.
Trucking companies are further hamstrung by not having access to a national database of drivers’ records. Instead, the DOT’s one centralized database has only basic information like name, height and weight, and directs you to state DMVs for data on offenses. For their part, the states are often slow to put citations into their computer systems, especially if a violation occurs in one state and the trucker’s license came from another. The lag enables some drivers to renew their licenses before their bad records can catch up with them.
Moreover, says Jerry Donaldson, senior research director at Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, a trucker’s record doesn’t include any citations while driving his personal car unless they resulted in his passenger license being suspended or revoked. Someone could have run stop signs or been caught speeding while driving his own car, but if he kept his license, no employer would ever know about it. So these dangerous truckers remain behind the wheel, hurtling along the highway in their massive rigs. It’s high time we put the brakes on this scandal.