Accident that killed 7 motorcyclists exposed flaw in license system

Some notices of driving offenses languished in an electronic queue that no one was responsible for checking. Others — tens of thousands of violation notices sent by mail — were simply sorted into bins and left in a records room. Yet another set of notices seemed to have disappeared entirely.

Accident that killed 7 motorcyclists exposed flaw in license system

After a devastating crash last month in which a pickup truck collided with a group of motorcyclists on a rural New Hampshire highway, killing seven of them, questions have emerged about why the driver of the truck still had a commercial license from the state of Massachusetts even though he had been charged about a month earlier with driving under the influence.

When the driver, Volodymyr Zhukovskyy, 23, was arrested in May, he had refused to be tested for alcohol, the authorities said, which should have disqualified him from operating a commercial motor vehicle for at least a year.

On Monday, Massachusetts officials acknowledged major lapses at the state’s Registry of Motor Vehicles that had allowed not only Zhukovskyy, but also hundreds of other drivers, to slip through the cracks when they should have had their licenses suspended. In the past three days, registry employees going through old records have suspended the licenses of 546 people, according to the state Department of Transportation, and the search of records is continuing.

“This failure is completely unacceptable to me, to the residents of the Commonwealth who expect the RMV to do its job and track drivers’ records,” Gov. Charlie Baker, a Republican, said in a news conference Monday.

An advocacy group for motorcyclists expressed outrage at the findings.

“It is disturbing and unacceptable that drivers are allowed to operate on our highways who have no business being there,” said Pete terHorst, a spokesman for the American Motorcyclist Association. “Motorcyclists have every right to be on the road, as do other licensed operators, and we rely on our states’ motor vehicle divisions to ensure that laws and regulations are enforced.”

In the case of Zhukovskyy, an RMV computer system was unable to process an electronic notification from Connecticut about Zhukovskyy’s arrest in May, so it was added to a list of unprocessed notices that were to be looked at by hand. No one at the registry was assigned to review that list, though, and as a result, Zhukovskyy’s license was not suspended.

In the fatal New Hampshire accident in June, Zhukovskyy has been charged with seven counts of negligent homicide and has pleaded not guilty. Efforts to reach his lawyer Monday evening were unsuccessful. Zhukovskyy has pleaded not guilty to the driving under the influence charge from Connecticut in May.

Last week, Massachusetts officials acknowledged that the RMV had made a mistake in not suspending Zhukovskyy’s commercial license, and the head of the registry, Erin Deveney, resigned. At the same time, state officials said that Connecticut had failed to provide sufficient information about the arrest.

On Monday, however, state officials said that preliminary findings of a review set off by the crash had found that there were serious gaps in the way the state processes notifications from other states about violations by drivers with Massachusetts licenses.

First, there were unprocessed electronic notifications about commercial license holders like Zhukovskyy.

Even more serious problems were discovered in cases where violations by Massachusetts drivers were sent by mail from other states. The office responsible for reviewing these violations had been incapable of keeping up, producing a serious backlog by the middle of 2016, the state’s review found. At that point, responsibility was transferred to a different office, but in March 2018, for reasons that are unclear, workers in that office stopped processing the notifications altogether. Instead, they were sorted into mail bins and stored in a records room, the state’s review found.

Some 53 bins, containing tens of thousands of notifications, have been discovered, and state officials were continuing to search through them. More suspensions were possible.

It remains a mystery what happened to the backlog of mailed notifications that existed in September 2016, when responsibility for reviewing them was transferred.

The transportation department said that, going forward, the RMV had set a goal of processing all notifications mailed from other states the same day they were received or the next business day.

State officials said they now plan to compare records for all 5.2 million licensed Massachusetts drivers against the National Driver Registry, to catch any other violations that may have gone unrecorded.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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