Truckers' Licenses Investigated

Monday, July 3rd 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

CHICAGO (AP) — A trucking bribery scandal in Illinois and Florida has forced safety officers nationwide to track down drivers who may be barreling down highways without ever having proved they can maneuver a huge truck.

Federal and state investigators have identified nearly 3,000 people with suspicious commercial drivers licenses from the two states. Many of those drivers have exchanged their licenses for new ones in other states.

An Associated Press survey of state licensing officials found that at least 175 truckers outside of Illinois and Florida had their licenses revoked or suspended as a result of the probe.

National concern over truck driver licenses was sparked by a 2-year-old federal investigation of a bribery scheme in Illinois. Federal prosecutors say hundreds of unqualified drivers traded bribes for passing grades on license tests.

``The safety of all drivers is at stake,'' said Cydney DeModica, spokeswoman for the Motor Vehicle Division of the Arizona Department of Transportation. ``I don't think there's anyone that wants people that are inadequately prepared or not proficient to be out there at the wheel of these big rigs.''

In Illinois, an additional 587 commercial licenses have been either canceled or downgraded to normal licenses. Florida canceled the truck licenses of 500 people who did not show up for a retest.

The FBI recently identified about 650 more drivers who may have received Florida licenses under suspicious circumstances, said Sandra Lambert, director of Florida's Division of Driver Licenses.

Many more drivers from coast to coast were in the process of being retested.

The probe was launched in the aftermath of a 1994 highway accident in Wisconsin that killed six children and involved a driver accused of illicitly obtaining his license in Illinois.

During the course of the Illinois investigation, a secretary in Chicago alerted authorities to a large number of truckers who had exchanged Florida licenses in Illinois. That led to charges against workers at a truck driving school in Tampa that is accused of accepting bribes to pass more than 1,000 drivers.

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration estimates there are 3 million active truck drivers in the United States. The administration, called in to examine the license programs in Illinois and Florida, has found few problems elsewhere, said agency spokesman Dave Longo.

Even so, it's common practice for drivers license bureaus to let truck drivers with a valid license in another state swap that license without taking another test. That is why so many states now have to track down truckers originally licensed in Illinois or Florida.

New York has been hardest hit, ordering new tests for 102 truckers from Illinois and 189 from Florida, according to Department of Motor Vehicles spokesman Ken Brown.

Only 11 of the Illinois drivers kept their New York licenses. Brown said 152 of the drivers from Florida have scheduled new tests, but the results are not yet available.

``We have been extremely aggressive in trying to track these people down,'' Brown said.

But tracking down suspect drivers is not always easy, several state officials said.

In Georgia, for example, officials matched five names on the list of suspect drivers from Illinois. Those drivers, though, stayed in Georgia for just a few weeks before trading their licenses again in New York and New Jersey, said Gordy Wright, spokesman for the Georgia Department of Public Safety.

Jan Mattson, supervisor of the exam and inspection program for the Minnesota Department of Public Safety, said it's also difficult to keep tabs on drivers licensed through third parties, such as the driving school in Florida.

Lambert, in Florida, said the efforts to get suspect drivers off the road seem to be working. Her office received several phone calls last week from truck drivers stopped at weigh stations because their licenses had been canceled.

``We do feel good about the way it's been handled,'' Lambert said.


On the Net:

Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration commercial drivers license page: