The Senate is considering truck safety legislation that would buttress a number of regulatory reforms under way at the Department of Transportation, such as an electronic onboard recorder mandate and mandatory 65-mph speed limiters, and give the agency more authority in a number of areas.

The draft safety title of pending legislation to reauthorize the federal highway program lays out a broad agenda for the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. Many of the dozens of provisions already are in development, but the draft does give the agency additional authority in a number of areas.

It would strengthen FMCSA's ability to revoke the registration of a carrier, forwarder or broker that has "reincarnated" itself under a different identity after having been sanctioned for safety violations. Carriers and managers found to have repeatedly dodged compliance requirements also would be subject to sanctions.

It would toughen barriers to entry by requiring would-be carriers to submit a comprehensive safety management plan and pass a written exam covering safety regulations. And it would require the agency to conduct a safety review of a new entrant within a year of registration.

Picking up on an issue put forward by the owner-operator segment of the industry, the draft calls for a study of how detention time affects hours of service violations and driver fatigue. The study would be conducted by the Motor Carrier Safety Advisory Committee, a panel of officials from the industry, the enforcement community and labor and safety advocacy groups to which the agency turns for feedback and ideas on industry issues.

The draft orders DOT to study the need for a heavy truck crashworthiness standard, covering roof and pillar strength, air bags and front and back wall standards. This follows a call for such a standard from American Trucking Associations and the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association.

Speed and logs

The speed limiter provision in the draft, which would require 65-mph limiters, is similar to a rule now under way at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration at the request of the American Trucking Associations and a truck safety group, Road Safe America. The one difference is that ATA has requested the retrofit requirement go back to 1992, rather than 1990 as the draft specifies. ATA and truck safety advocates are united behind this idea, but OOIDA is strongly against it.

The EOBR language in the draft addresses a range of technical issues that have arisen around FMCSA's ongoing rulemaking. It also sets tougher standards for driver identification and data security, and would require the agency to set up a certification process to make sure the devices on the market comply with these requirements. Further details on these points will emerge later in August when the Motor Carrier Safety Advisory Committee, which has been studying the issue, makes its recommendations to FMCSA.

Several provisions in the draft address safety concerns about Canadian carriers. One says that if a Canadian agency prohibits a Canadian carrier from operating in that country, then FMCSA has the authority do the same in the U.S. Another says U.S. officials may negotiate with Canadian officials to provide reciprocal recognition of each country's fitness determination. And a third requires states to report convictions of Canadian drivers to a federal database.

Safety fitness

The draft tells FMCSA to get on with the safety fitness rule that is the next step in CSA safety enforcement process, ordering the agency to act by the end of the year to put an interim safety fitness methodology in place.

In other provisions the draft sets up a safety fitness rating system under which drivers who do not meet standards can be prohibited from driving for up to a year. And it requires the agency to review carriers who fall among the most high-risk carriers in the CSA database for two months in a row.

The draft tells FMCSA to set up a CDL notification system, in which employers would have to check each driver's violation record with the state DMV at least once a year. Also, states would have to notify employers if a driver's license status changes due to legal actions such as a conviction for a moving violation, an accident or a license suspension.

The draft also addresses a number of ongoing rulemakings, such as driver training, the license program, and the national clearinghouse for drug and alcohol test results.

Long way to go

This proposal is a long way from passage. It has yet to be voted on by the Senate Surface Transportation Subcommittee, which is chaired by Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., or the full committee. Even if it clears those hurdles in its present form, it would have to be reconciled with the House version of the safety title, which still is being written.

More important, it is not likely that Congress will be able to pass reauthorization legislation by the end of September when the current extension expires.

The Senate is working on a two-year reauthorization funded at current levels, while the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee opted for a six-year bill that cuts funding by 36%. These huge differences would be hard to overcome in the month's time that will be available after Congress returns from summer recess, even if there were no differences over taxation, budget cuts, stimulus investment and the 2012 presidential election.