RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — Federal regulations require motor carriers to conduct background investigations before hiring truckers, but the companies have wide discretion when deciding whether to hire someone with poor driving records or criminal convictions.
The driver of an oversized rig that derailed an Amtrak passenger train after it got stuck on the tracks earlier this week is a convicted felon with a long history of traffic citations, The Associated Press determined after examining court records. The crash Monday in Halifax, North Carolina, injured 55 people.
There is nothing in the federal regulations that prevents drivers with criminal records from getting a commercial license, as long as they didn't commit the crimes while driving a truck.
"If that crime was committed during the operation of a commercial motor vehicle, then yes, they could be disqualified," said V. Paul Herbert, a commercial vehicle safety expert who has testified in 175 trials.
For example, a trucker could lose his license if he gets cited for driving under the influence while on the job, or was caught hauling illicit cargo such as illegal drugs, Herbert said.
Court records show John Devin Black, the driver involved in Monday's train crash, has been cited for at least a dozen traffic violations, including speeding and driving with a revoked license multiple times.
In Illinois, Black was arrested in December 2012 and charged with exceeding the permitted weight limit on his load. He was quickly released on a $177 secured bond, but then failed to appear in court the following month.
Black, 43, also served prison time in 1997 after being convicted of felony child abuse in North Carolina and his other criminal convictions include assaulting a woman, violating a domestic violence protective order, and repeatedly writing worthless checks.
Black does have a valid commercial driver's license, but did not need to pass a criminal background check to get it, the North Carolina Division of Motor Vehicles confirmed Wednesday.
No charges have been filed against Black in relation to Monday's crash, though law enforcement officials say that is still under consideration.
An Associated Press reporter walked past the no-trespassing sign on the front porch of Black's home in the rural community of Claremont, North Carolina, and knocked on the door seeking comment about his record.
Black didn't answer, but shortly after the reporter left a note and a phone number, a spokeswoman for his employer, Guy M. Turner Inc. of Greensboro, called.
Asked about Black's driving record and other details of the accident, company spokeswoman Jeanette Landreth declined to comment and said Black won't talk either.
Guy M. Turner Inc. specializes in moving huge, heavy equipment. Before Monday's crash, its 161 trucks were involved in 13 significant highway crashes over the past two years, resulting in nine injuries. Turner has a "satisfactory" safety rating, according to U.S. Department of Transportation records.
As workers finished clearing debris from the derailment site, investigators were piecing together why emergency railroad dispatchers apparently weren't told Black was struggling to negotiate a tight turn across the tracks with a load nearly 16 feet wide and tall, weighing 127 tons and stretching for 164 feet.
The locomotive's "black box" was recovered and investigators will review the state permit that enabled Turner to exceed length and weight limits while hauling the electrical distribution facility to New Jersey.
The route, including the fateful turn at the railroad crossing, was designed to avoid several highway overpasses along Interstate 95 that would have been too low to get under with such a tall load, officials said.
Long-established protocols require truck drivers and trooper escorts to "clear their routes and inform the railroad dispatchers what they're doing," said Steve Ditmeyer, a former Federal Railroad Administration official.
Failing that, a toll-free emergency number prominently displayed at each crossing reaches dispatchers who can radio trains to stop.
Weiss reported from Claremont, North Carolina. Associated Press writers Tammy Webber in Chicago and Meg Kinnard in Columbia, South Carolina, contributed to this report.