Let the sun shine in

Updated Apr 5, 2010

The House highway bill seeks greater visibility into trucking

In most years, Congress doesn’t do much that targets the trucking industry. That’s a good thing, of course. Every few years, however, lawmakers focus on motor carriers when it reauthorizes highway programs through laws with odd acronyms like ISTEA, TEA-21 and the latest, SAFETEA-LU, which expires Sept. 30. As usual, Congress is behind the curve in passing a highway bill, and there’s added urgency this year. Owning to lower fuel tax receipts because of the economic recession and reduced driving, the highway trust fund could run out of money as early as August.

The Obama administration wants to act quickly on a simple 18-month extension of highway programs that makes the trust fund solvent and gives stakeholders more time to develop a comprehensive long-term bill. Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), who chairs the Senate Environment & Public Works Committee, agrees. But the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee is moving ahead with STAA – the Surface Transportation Authorization Act of 2009.

The bill would sharply increase funding levels, reform and consolidate dozens of federal programs and focus spending into the priorities of infrastructure preservation, highway safety, capacity enhancement and reduction of congestion, greenhouse gases and air pollution.

Some infrastructure-related proposals – an office to oversee tolls and privatization, for example – are of considerable interest to the trucking industry, but the section that likely would affect you the most day to day is Title IV, which addresses commercial motor vehicle safety. Title IV seems to follow a theme that House transportation leaders probably didn’t consciously intend: Greater knowledge of and visibility into trucking operations. At least implicitly, lawmakers seem to view a significant number of drivers and carriers as lurking in the shadows, hiding various misdeeds from ill-equipped regulators and law enforcement officials.

The picture is one of drivers obtaining commercial driver’s licenses without much training, tracking down “Dr. Feelgoods” to help them pass their medicals, changing jobs to outrun positive drug tests, failing to tell their employers that they have lost their CDLs and, of course, fabricating logbooks to say what they need to say regardless of reality. Meanwhile, some carriers go into the business without a clue of their safety and compliance responsibilities. And then when the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration shuts them down, they set up shop down the road with new names and cousins and in-laws as front people.

These are deplorable practices to be sure, although most certainly occur only at the margin. Still, it’s appropriate to target such abuses, and the House bill does so. The trucking industry itself mostly supports these efforts. STAA includes several items – a clearinghouse for drug and alcohol positive test results, incentives for states to notify employers of revoked or suspended CDLs, a registry of certified medical examiners and safety training requirements for new entrant carriers – that match policies in the American Trucking Associations’ 18-point safety agenda.

The most noteworthy proposal in Title IV undoubtedly is the one mandating electronic onboard recorders (EOBRs) on all commercial vehicles operating in interstate commerce within four years. Several years ago, ATA announced conditional support for EOBRs, but the House bill clearly doesn’t meet those conditions. It is silent on shielding EOBR data from litigation and on relieving carriers of the burden of retaining supporting documents, for example. And STAA explicitly calls on FMCSA to phase in the mandate, although it doesn’t say how. ATA’s position is that any mandate should apply simultaneously to all carriers affected. Still, there’s plenty of room for negotiation.

With both the Obama administration and Senate leaders favoring a short-term extension, prospects for STAA this year are slim at best. But whether it’s today or 2011, the time has come to close loopholes that put the public at risk and give the trucking industry a bad name.

Avery vise is editorial director of Commercial Carrier Journal.
E-mail avise@ccjmagazine.com.