Reform to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration and its signature safety management program is included in a compromise highway bill agreed to Tuesday by congressional negotiators, paving the way for votes in the House and Senate. If Congress passes the 5-year, $300 billion package and President Obama signs it, the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act would be the most substantial highway funding authorization since SAFETEA-LU was crafted a decade ago.
The latest extension of MAP-21, the current federal program, is set to expire Friday, so another brief extension may be needed before Congress can vote on the new plan.
Still, the leaders of the House and Senate transportation committees who crafted the policy portions of the bicameral, bipartisan agreement called the FAST Act “a vital investment in our country.”
Along with funding federal highway and transit projects, the 1,300-page legislation includes an expansion of the national freight program and the promotion of vehicle-to-infrastructure equipment to improve congestion and safety.
Among the trucking-specific provisions, the legislation overhauls the rulemaking process to improve transparency and requires a review of and changes to the Compliance, Safety, Accountability program, including removal of the carrier safety scores from public display and the development a crash accountability component. The bill also calls on FMCSA to develop a plan to reward trucking companies who go beyond the regulatory requirements and invest in additional safety technologies and programs.
Another provision requires a full study of the commercial impacts and safety benefits of raising the minimum insurance requirement for carries.
And while the package spells out a number initiatives to make it easier for servicemen and women to transition into truck driving careers, negotiators did not retain language that would have let states permit CDL holders under age 21 to cross state lines. Instead, the bill calls for pilot program to study the feasibility, benefits, and safety impacts of allowing drivers between 18 and 21 to work in interstate commerce.
Also not making the bill were provisions that would have spelled out carrier hiring standards for brokers and shippers, and reinforced interstate commerce precedence over state work rules for truck drivers.
Other driver-related language in the conference report would permit hair testing in drug and alcohol screening and would require FMCSA to study whether long truck driver commute times contribute to on-the-job highway accidents.
Winners and losers
Trucking and transportation interests generally praised the conference committee for coming up with an agreement but otherwise their respective reaction has been mixed, depending on the policy particulars.
Both the American Trucking Assns. (ATA) and the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Assn. spoke favorably of the FMCSA reforms, CSA changes, expanded opportunities for veterans, and the restrictions on insurance increases.
“By ordering an evaluation and improvement of CSA, as well as removing the flawed scores the system produces from public view in the meantime, this bill is an important victory for data and accuracy in regulatory oversight,” ATA Executive Vice President and Chief of National Advocacy Dave Osiecki said.
However, the final bill “does miss opportunities to further improve safety and efficiency in trucking”—particularly in the case of younger drivers, ATA added, calling it “puzzling” that very similar language in both the House and Senate versions of the bill to support the initiative was replaced with a pilot program that’s “so starkly different.”
ATA also expressed “disappointment” that the bill “does not address the potential patchwork of state rules unleashed by allowing California and other states to impose their own work and rest rules.”
OOIDA emphasized that small-business trucking has sought reforms to FMCSA and “its flawed approaches to research,” and has opposed the agency’s “unwarranted attempts” to raise minimum financial responsibility requirements.
Unlike ATA, however, OOIDA opposed the provision that would have restricted “a state’s ability regarding how drivers are compensated.” OOIDA also had opposed language in the House version that would have limited the hiring standard protections to carriers with a “Satisfactory” rating—putting safe but unrated carriers at a disadvantage in the marketplace.
“[The hiring standard] would have unfairly placed a scarlet letter on 95 percent of all motor carriers,” said OOIDA Executive Vice President Todd Spencer. “Safe carriers should not be penalized because of shortcomings in the agency’s rating process.”
The Transportation Intermediaries Assn. (TIA), which has lobbied for hiring standard for several years and unsuccessfully tried to change the House version to include unrated carriers, said the “the eleventh-and-a-half hour” decision to strip the provision was the result of negotiators avoiding the more controversial attachments to the bill. The briefing memo to members argued that such a standard is not controversial, but should be a “common sense solution to reduce the existential threat of frivolous lawsuits based on flawed data.”
“We may not have won this battle, but we have created a very loud and strong voice for the third-party logistics Industry,” said TIA President & CEO Robert Voltmann. “We will use that voice to continue the fight to bring sanity to carrier selection.”
The Truck Safety Coalition, made up of several highway safety advocacy groups, noted that the FAST Act “removed several dangerous policies, improved upon other anti-safety measures, but unfortunately, included some troubling provisions.”
The coalition had opposed the hiring standard protections and younger truck drivers that were removed from the final bill. But the group called “troublesome” the language to remove CSA scores from public view.
“Concealing scores that are collected by taxpayer-funded law enforcement officers on tax-payer-funded roads essentially robs the motoring public of two things: the ability to access data that they paid for and public safety,” a Truck Safety Coalition statement said.