Bad idea is one step closer

Connecticut has become the third state, after New York and New Jersey, to nix using handheld cell phones while driving. Gov. M. Jodi Rell signed the bill into law in July. Violators face a $100 fine beginning Oct. 1. The restriction applies not only to cell phones but to the use of any mobile electronic device while driving and to any other distractions not directly related to vehicle operation, such as reading or putting on cosmetics. It does not, however, apply to emergency calls.

Massachusetts Legislature is still considering legislation that would make drowsy driving a criminal offense. The bill, sponsored by state Sen. Richard Moore, has been pending in a joint legislative transportation committee since June 24. The legislation would mandate better training for law enforcement officers in recognizing sleep-deprived drivers, include sleep issues in license exams and add sleep-disorder experts to the state medical advisory board.

California Highway Patrol in late July began a 15-month crackdown on reckless truck drivers on Bay Area highways. CHP Sgt. Wayne Ziese said the effort was part of a statewide campaign that began on July 1 and would focus on three stretches of freeway – Interstate 80 from the Bay Bridge to Dixon, I-580 through Dublin and the Altamont Pass, and I-880 from downtown San Jose to downtown Oakland. Funding for the campaign comes from a $1.7 million grant from the Office of Traffic Safety.

Q Is it true that the new highway bill, which was signed into law in August, abolishes non-household goods freight forwarder and property broker registration requirements and with it the broker’s bond or bank trust agreement?

A Almost. The law gives the Department of Transportation discretion over whether to continue registration. The abolition of the broker registration requirement has been on the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s wish list for some time. In my July 2003 column, I wrote that DOT had proposed to change the regulation of brokers and non-household goods carriers from a congressional mandate to a program that the agency could terminate after rulemaking and comment.

As I argued in that column, DOT’s proposal to Congress was genuinely a bad idea that should have been dead on arrival when initially proposed as part of the highway programs reauthorization bill. All of the major constituencies – associations representing trucking, brokers and shippers – agreed that the regulation of brokers served a useful public purpose and operated under the assumption that any change of the non-household goods freight forwarder or broker regulations would be stripped out of any final legislation.

Unfortunately, the industry has been caught flat-footed. Lost in the pork of the 1,100-page highway bill are provisions that strip the requirement of registration and financial responsibility, leaving the decision up to DOT.

As originally proposed, the department would have to conduct a rulemaking, giving the industry time to comment before the regulation could be abolished, but the highway law as enacted does not make clear whether the regulation of property brokers and non-household goods freight forwarders terminates with the effective date in the absence of further departmental action or whether the industry gets a formal opportunity to express its opinion first.

Some things do appear clear, though. FMCSA’s primary objective is highway safety, and the agency has a pre-disposition to abandon any program that it believes has no direct impact on safety regardless of its marketplace benefits. Clearly, FMCSA does not recognize the mandate to provide even rudimentary information the industry needs if safety is not involved. After the anti-competitive policies of the filed rate doctrine and restrictive entry control, the pendulum has swung all the way to a laissez-faire attitude toward FMCSA’s involvement in the industry.

There is little apparent appreciation for the void that will be left if there is not at least some federal database identifying and qualifying transportation instrumentalities operating in interstate commerce. The states cannot do it because the services that are rendered are national in scope. FMCSA has developed a useful website that, at little cost to the registeree, has provided a home page for any constituent to check out a carrier or broker’s identity, financial responsibility and agents for service of process. It makes no sense to maintain the same database for safety-related information only.

Until Congress amends the national transportation policy (49 U.S.C.