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Federal Highway Administration > Publications > Public Roads > Vol. 62· No. 6 > The National Driver History Initiative

May/June 1999
Vol. 62· No. 6

The National Driver History Initiative

by Brian M. McLaughlin

This article was adapted with the permission of Move, the magazine of the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators, from "The National Driver History Initiative" by Brian M. McLaughlin. The original article was published in the Spring 1998 issue of Move.

The highway safety literature consistently indicates that driver error is a major factor leading to vehicle crashes. That is, mistakes, misjudgments, and poor driver behavior leads to crashes and their resultant injuries, fatalities, property damage, environmental problems, and economic loss due to congestion delays. Unfortunately, truck and bus drivers with a history of multiple traffic convictions can sometimes go undetected by law enforcement officers, putting America's motorists at risk.

To combat this problem, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) awarded $1.2 million to nine states for fiscal year 1998 for a new driver history pilot project. The states - California, Indiana, Iowa, Montana, New Mexico, New York, Texas, Washington, and Wisconsin - used the grants ranging from $28,000 to $300,000 to design, evaluate, and upgrade automated systems for recording traffic convictions and exchanging driver safety information among courts, police, and licensing agencies.

The pilot project, authorized by the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century (TEA-21) enabled the states to achieve more accurate, complete, and timely reporting and recording of commercial motor vehicle driver histories, including suspensions and reinstatements under the commercial driver's licensing program. The participating states eliminated inconsistencies and delays in their electronic reporting systems and studied their conviction deferral programs, which can allow drivers to avoid sanctions for breaking traffic laws.

Truck accident
Too frequently, truck drivers involved in accidents have a history of multiple traffic convictions.

Speedier information exchange within and among the states strengthens law enforcement efforts, provides courts and prosecutors with more reliable data, and helps trucking companies make better decisions when recruiting and evaluating drivers.

The backbone of the effort to deal with problem drivers is the Driver-Control System. This is the adjudicatory framework by which law enforcement, prosecutors, courts, and motor vehicle licensing agencies issue citations, adjudicate driving offenses, report those offenses for entry on drivers' records, and exchange information among the participants in a state's system and with licensing and adjudicatory systems outside that state. Without a viable driver-control system, potential problem drivers might not be identified, and then corrective action could not be taken before these chronic offenders caused crashes, injuries, and fatalities.

For example, in November 1994, four-year-old Jamie Lee Burke of Shepherdsville, Ky., was killed when a 31-metric-ton dump truck crashed into the back of the car in which Jamie was riding. The driver of the dump truck was legally drunk, and he smashed into the car, which was stopped at a red light, without even touching his brakes. A blood-alcohol test taken two hours after the crash indicated that the alcohol level in the driver's blood still exceeded the legal limit.

In the investigation following the crash, authorities learned that the truck driver had a history of violations. In May 1994, the driver, while stopped at a weigh station in another state, was tested for alcohol and his blood-alcohol level exceeded the legal limit for commercial motor vehicle operators (0.04 BAC). In July 1994, the driver was convicted of driving while intoxicated. Unfortunately, when the conviction was reported to the licensing agency in the driver's home state, the reporting agency did not check the commercial motor vehicle box at the top of the citation. Without the appropriate check mark, the home state entered the conviction as an open-container violation instead of a driving-under-the-influence conviction. Under federal commercial drivers' licensing rules, the driver should have received a one-year suspension of his license. A suspension would have prohibited this driver from legally operating a commercial motor vehicle four months later when he killed Jamie Lee Burke.

This is only one of many examples of potentially preventable tragedies that occurred because the license data exchange system is not as efficient as it can be. For that reason, FHWA and NHTSA developed the Driver History Initiative to make our highways safer.

Brian M. McLaughlin is the chief of the National Programs Division in FHWA's Office of Motor Carrier and Highway Safety.

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