We have a measure in Congress proposing to give truck and bus owners tax credits for putting advanced safety devices on their equipment. It's about time.
The bill would amend the Internal Revenue Code and reward carriers for using technology such as collision and lane departure warning systems, stability controls and brake stroke monitoring. Called the Commercial Motor Vehicle Advanced Safety Technology Act, it applies to trucks rated at 26,000 pounds and up.
It would grant a corporate income tax credit equal to half the cost of a qualified safety system, up to $1,500. Maximum credit per vehicle would be $3,500, and a fleet would be limited to a total $350,000 credit per year. It would expire at the end of 2012.
Qualified safety systems could be put on new trucks or retrofitted. Manufacturers would have to certify the system is right for the vehicle, and installers would have to certify that any retrofits work. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration would have the authority to add other systems to the qualified list.
It's a sensible, compact package, and it didn't just come out of thin air. The Heavy Duty Manufacturers Association and its parent, the Motor & Equipment Manufacturers Association, worked with Rep. Mike Thompson (D-Calif.) to draft and introduce the bill.
As it was being drafted, an ingenious HDMA and MEMA ride-and-drive demonstration at Robert F. Kennedy stadium - right in the politicians' backyard - gave legislators and federal agencies a first-hand look at the effectiveness of the safety systems. A dozen manufacturers showed safety and energy technologies to a crowd of about 150. It was great strategy, and couldn't help but impress some powerful politicos.
The bill, H.R. 3820, was championed by Thompson, but it has bipartisan support. Four other Democrats and three Republicans signed on to its introduction. They are: Ron Lewis (R-Ky.); Heath Shuler (D-N.C.); Steve LaTourette (R-Ohio); Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.); Sander Levin (D-Mich.); Ellen Tauscher (D-Calif.), and Mike Rogers (R-Mich.).
Just one crash can ruin a fleet - especially a small fleet that may not have deep pockets. Studies by FMCSA put the average cost of a heavy truck wreck at $166,000 for property damage and injuries. If there's a fatality involved, the average leaps to some $3.5 million.
Safety technology works. Just ask innovators like U.S. Xpress, Maverick, Boyle Transportation and Saia Motor Freight, whose use of the systems has more than paid for them in accident prevention.
But it's tough for a lot of truck buyers to shell out the extra bucks. They opt to roll the dice and not buy, betting they'll be free of serious accidents. Tax credits would make the systems more affordable, and buyers would benefit further from savings on accidents they don't have.
But this is far from a slam-dunk. There will be a government analysis of how much the bill's tax credits will cost the treasury, and whether the loss can be covered elsewhere, such as a budget cut in another program. There's a long waiting line for those kinds of monies.
It is critical that all elements of the trucking community be on board with a clear-cut, ringing endorsement of this legislation. It is also critical that it be kept simple. If other items are hung on it - like retroactivity, more devices or tax breaks for other types of systems - it will likely be a dead duck.
If you think this is pushing Big Brother on the industry, consider that it is a financial incentive, still giving buyers an option. Keep in mind, there are plenty of people around - with power of their own - who would love to see the government require this equipment.
The bigger picture that Congress must see is that injuries and deaths will be prevented by passage of this bill. Unfortunately, the monetary savings those accident reductions will bring to society won't be part of the cost justification equation. That's not how the system works.
Regardless, this is win-win legislation. Congress needs to get it done.
E-mail Doug Condra at [email protected], or write P.O. Box W, Newport Beach, CA 92658.