NORTHEAST OHIO -- It's an 18-wheel con game. Trucking companies with horrible safety records that dodge inspectors by changing their names and so-called DOT numbers, as in the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT).
It's happening so often in northeast Ohio and across the country that they have a name for it.
They're called 'chameleon carriers' and safety watchdogs say they're putting all drivers at risk.
One such example involved Anthony Costello, of Lorain. He was about to retire when the truck he was driving suddenly crashed on I-90 in Lakewood, killing him.
His family later learned the vehicle was too dangerous to drive.
"There's no excuse for a vehicle like that to even be on the road," said his daughter Joanna.
James Crawford, a crash reconstructionist with Introtech in Grafton, found the truck blew a tire which was badly-worn. He said the front axle was in such bad shape, it flew off the truck during the crash.
"It had so many maintenance issues to begin with that it should hot have been on the road," Crawford said.
Andy Young is regarded as a truck safety expert. He has his own 18-wheeler.
He's also a Cleveland attorney who represents the Costello family. He blames Anthony's death on a poorly-maintained truck with serious safety violations.
"It was definitely something that was sudden, unexpected and preventable," Young said.
The family sued and won a $2.5 million settlement. But in a sad twist, they've so far collected nothing because the name change by the company left the truck uninsured, their attorney said.
Creta Costello says her husband was driving a Haslage Fleet Service truck. He had been on the job only a week before the fatal crash.
"Found out the truck should have been in the junkyard," Creta said.
Young found the state ordered some company trucks off the road. According the lawsuit, federal regulators issued a warning letter because of the company's poor safety record.
"The owner was aware of these issues and he put my father into a death trap that day," said Joanna.
The government issues DOT numbers to identify companies and to monitor their safety records. But when safety scores go south, some companies obtain new numbers and change their names.
"They're trying to make us think that they're a new company," said Ken Kearns, a state safety inspector. with the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio.
Kearns says they're called chameleon companies and the Costello family says Anthony unknowingly worked for one.
"It changed its stripes four times to avoid violations over the long haul," Young said.
Young found the company operated under four names with four different DOT numbers. Phone calls to the company were not returned.
The General Accounting Office (GAO) found the number of chameleon carriers is growing.
"A lot of bad trucking companies fall under the radar and a lot of bad drivers marry up to those bad trucking companies," Young said.
The GAO also found that 18 percent of chameleon companies were involved in severe crashes. That's three times as many companies that have not changed their identities.
It's not that the state of Ohio isn't doing its job regarding roadside inspections. It's a case of too many trucks and too few inspectors.
WKYC Channel 3 News spent a few hours with inspectors at a truck stop in Wadsworth. They found trucks with brakes that didn't work, bald and flat tires, overweight trucks, and broken parts that help control steering.
Inspectors ordered several trucks out of service until repairs were made.
Last year in Ohio, inspectors conducted 87,000 truck inspections. The inspections resulted in 18,000 trucks ordered off the road. The state says one in every five trucks -- or 21 percent -- are considered too dangerous to drive.
Creta Costello knows now that the truck her husband was driving that tragic day also should have been removed from service. Her dreams of enjoying retirement with her husband have been shattered.
As Joanna said, "she has to spend the rest of her life without him."
By Tom Meyer