Highway legislation now law

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President Bush on Aug. 10 signed into law the so-called highway bill, which authorizes $286.4 billion in surface transportation projects and establishes numerous new mandates and standards for the regulation of motor carriers. And despite strong opposition from the trucking industry, the legislation provides for up to three projects to toll existing interstate highways.

The legislation also is remarkable for what it omits — a mandatory fuel surcharge and statutory protections for the current hours-of-service regulations. Because Congress did not codify current rules, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration must issue new hours rules by Sept. 30 to comply with a court order last summer. The Department of Transportation has sent its final draft to the White House for review.

Some other provisions of the legislation include:

  • Setting standards for a unified carrier registration system.
  • Mandating regulations to ensure that intermodal equipment used to transport intermodal containers is safe and systematically maintained.
  • New requirements for the regulation of household goods carriers.
  • Terminating the statutory requirement for registration of freight forwarders and brokers, but giving DOT the authority to require registration at its discretion.
  • Allowing FMCSA to shut carriers down if an officer has engaged in a pattern or practice of avoiding compliance or concealing noncompliance.
  • Expanding access by carriers and pre-employment screening services to driver safety information in FMCSA’s Motor Carrier Management Information System, including accident and violation reports.
  • Allocating $5 million for truck driver training as part of efforts to increase the number of people entering the profession.
  • Easing qualifications for insulin-dependent diabetic drivers seeking a waiver to hold a commercial drivers license.
  • Establishing a commercial motor vehicle safety advisory committee to provide advice and recommendations on a range of commercial motor vehicle safety issues.
  • Creating a new national standard for the maximum length of drive-away saddlemount with fullmount vehicle transporter combinations operated on the Interstate Highway System.

    Although Congress turned away attempts to codify the hours-of-service regulations, the highway legislation includes several provisions to grant or expand HOS exemptions. Drivers of utility service vehicles are permanently allowed to operate under the rules that were in effect prior to Jan. 4, 2004. Those drivers have been exempted from the new rules under a provision in the Department of Transportation funding law, which must be renewed annually.

    HOS exemptions also were approved for drivers of trucks used in motion picture production and for propane haulers during winter months and during pipeline emergences. The provision with broadest application, however, probably is the one covering drivers of agricultural commodities and farm supplies. The measure makes this exemption permanent — it’s currently in effect at FMCSA’s discretion — and expands the types of commodities, supplies and hauling covered.