Drivers

Safety Advisors Post Wish List for Highway Bill

February 11, 2014

By Oliver Patton

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An advisory panel is encouraging federal regulators to push for several dozen safety reforms in the upcoming highway bill, ranging from changing how drivers are paid to establishing an entirely new approach to hours of service.

The ideas proposed by the Motor Carrier Safety Advisory Committee are as diverse as the group’s membership, which includes carriers, owner-operators, police, labor unions, bus operators and safety advocates.

The agency asked the group for its suggestions in preparation for the drafting of the bill that’s now under way on Capitol Hill. The bill is due by October, after the current highway program expires at the end of September.

The panel members, who met Monday and Tuesday in Alexandria, Va., obliged the agency by posting longstanding agenda items for consideration.

The enforcement community wants more federal support for the Motor Carrier Safety Assistance Program. The current 80% federal match should be bumped to 90%, and the cap on funding for traffic enforcement should be bumped from 5% to 10%.

Police also don’t want Congress to include regulatory exemptions in the law. That practice leads to the accumulation of loopholes that are hard to enforce.

Industry representatives on the committee had a mixture of suggestions reflecting their concerns and business interests.

Danny Schnautz of Clark Freight Lines wants the agency to find an entirely new way to regulate driver hours of service.

This drew nervous laughter from an audience that has lived with a decade of bitter fighting over this intractable issue: why open the door again? But Schnautz said, “We should not settle on hours of service the way it is. Anybody that’s laughing has not had to live under these rules.”

He also wants the agency to do a rulemaking to establish uniform tolerances for variations in axle weights, while preserving the gross weight limit.

Don Osterberg, senior vice president of safety, security and driver training for Schneider National, added a national speed limit to the list.

The idea is unpopular and politically untenable, he acknowledged, but it’s a lifesaver: If you reduce speed you reduce the severity of crashes.

Another thing Osterberg wants is federal safety ratings for trucks, the same as the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration does for cars.

“I feel a moral obligation to our drivers to put them in the safest vehicle I can,” he said. He noted that NHTSA is working on occupant protection standards for trucks, but said that overall standards would create an incentive for manufacturers to compete on safety.

He’d also like to see Congress drop the 12% excise tax on specific truck safety equipment. The tax is a disincentive to purchasers, and DOT should have the authority to determine which technologies are exempt.

Another item on his list: FMCSA should advocate for quick adoption of infrastructure-to-vehicle safety communications of the type that are now being tested in Michigan. 

And Osterberg wants the agency to press for using hair testing for drugs as an alternative to urinalysis.

Todd Spencer, executive vice president of the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, wants the new law to require the agency to regularly review all current regulations, including its Safety Measurement System methodology, to gauge their effectiveness.

He also wants the agency to audit new entrants before they open their doors, rather than within 18 months as is the current practice.

And a longstanding agenda item for OOIDA has been tougher requirements for entry-level driver training.

Safety advocates on the panel posted an extensive wish list.

John Lannen, executive director of the Truck Safety Coalition, wants FMCSA to regulate Schedule II drugs, which range from opiates used in prescription pain relievers to stimulants used to treat attention deficit disorder.

He also wants a new rear underride standard and a study on the need for the front and side guards.

Another important initiative for safety advocates is to reform truck driver compensation. The agency should establish a minimum hourly pay rate for drivers, and the overtime pay exemption for drivers in the Fair Labor Standards Act should be eliminated, they say.

Henry Jasny, general counsel for Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, wants a provision in the law requiring the agency to conduct a rulemaking on sleep apnea. Right now the law only says that if the agency does do something about sleep apnea it must do a rulemaking.

Stephen Owings of Road Safe America, the chairman of the advisory panel, said the agency should consider a rulemaking to encourage or require safety systems such as forward collision warning and adaptive cruise control.

He also wants to require FMCSA to study airline safety regulation and determine what it would need to do to get trucks and buses to zero fatalities.

Another item on the list for the new law is creation of a Voluntary Safety Excellence Program. This would be similar to the Environmental Protection Agency’s SmartWay program for emissions and fuel economy.

Other items: tougher entry standards with a higher insurance requirement and registration fee; require petitions for rulemakings to be published in the Federal Register; require that the same rules apply to both inter- and intrastate drivers; and require that FMCSA regulate shippers for safety and driver pay.

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