In the House highway bill unveiled yesterday, Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., finally revealed what he meant when he said he will challenge the new hours of service rule. The bill could force the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration to rewrite the 34-hour restart provision of the rule, which limits the restart to once a week with two sleep periods from 1 a.m. to 5 a.m.

The bill would require the agency to do a field study of the provision. The study would have to be completed by March 31, 2013, three months before the rule is scheduled to go into effect. If the study supports the rule, then the provision would go into effect on schedule.

But if the study does not support the change, the agency would have to go through another rulemaking to modify the rule. The current restart rule would remain in effect during the rulemaking process.

This clarifies Mica's intent following his warning last September that the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee "will aggressively oversee" changes to the hours of service rules.

Productivity Provisions

The bill also includes language that would allow states to increase the truck weight limit on Interstate highways from 80,000 pounds to 97,000 pounds, provided the truck has a sixth axle.

The Department of Transportation would be able to establish fees for these trucks, based on the increased cost of wear and tear on the road. The fees would go into the Highway Trust Fund.

Another productivity provision would permit states that already allow longer combination vehicles to add more routes for these trucks.

A third provision would allow states to issue special permits for gross vehicle weight up to 126,000 pounds on Interstate segments of 25 miles or less.

This provision already is a political lightning rod, with the American Automobile Association and the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association joining the Teamsters union, highway safety advocates and the railroad industry in opposition.

"Truck drivers know firsthand that heavier and longer trucks are much harder to maneuver and put additional stress on our already deteriorating highways and bridges," said Todd Spencer, OOIDA executive vice president, in a statement.

The group contends that the weight increase would force small carriers to buy new equipment they cannot afford. "When choosing between a trucker bringing home $40,000 a year on average and a bailout for multibillion- dollar corporations, I hope Congress will make the right decision and side with small-business truckers," Spencer said.

Other trucking interests, including American Trucking Associations and the Coalition for Transportation Productivity, applauded the provision.

John Runyan, executive director of CTP, said the provision will give states the option of putting more productive and safer trucks on the road - the addition of the sixth axle gives the vehicle the same braking capability as an 80,000-pound truck, he said.

"American truck weight limits trail all other developed countries, which widely use six-axle trucks to carry heavier loads," Runyan said in a statement.

He cited a study of international truck weights that suggests the use of more productive trucks has reduced truck traffic and benefited safety and the environment.

"Since the United Kingdom raised its gross vehicle weight limit to 97,000 pounds for six-axle vehicles in 2001, fatal truck-related accident rates have declined by 35%," he said. "More freight has been shipped, while the vehicle miles traveled to deliver each ton of freight has declined. That's just what we need here in the U.S."

The coalition's membership includes some 200 shippers, shipping associations and trucking companies.

Other Provisions

The bill takes on a number of additional truck-related issues.

It tells DOT to start researching the need for occupant protection standards for tractors, an initiative that has been pushed by trucking interests including ATA and OOIDA.

Of prominent interest to tank carriers, it says the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration must review its pending rule to require carriers to drain gasoline from loading lines, the so-called "wetlines" rule.

The agency would have to hire an "objective non-profit organization" to study the situation, the bill says. The study would have to count the frequency of wetlines incidents over the past decade and evaluate alternatives to carrying flammables in wetlines.

"We are obviously pleased with the T&I Committee language to halt publication of the wetlines ban rule," said John Conley, president of the National Tank Truck Carriers.

"This regulation is a prime example of a politically driven issue that wastes dedicated Department of Transportation employee and industry time for no real safety reason. We hope that PHMSA will pay attention to this language and not publish a final rule later this year, as planned."

The bill also challenges regulators to take greater account of small carriers and owner operators.

In one provision, it tells the Government Accountability Office to study the extent to which federal truck safety rules hamper the operations of small carriers and owner operators. GAO would have nine months from passage of the law to produce the report and make recommendations to reduce adverse regulatory impacts on small carriers.

No FMCSA regulations affecting small carriers or owner-operators could go into effect in the six months after GAO finishes the study, this provision says.

Another provision orders DOT to produce a report on what it's doing to balance truck competition with safety, particularly in relation to the impact of the hours of service rules on small carriers and owner-operators.
In other provisions, the bill:

* Directs DOT to study the effectiveness of crash-avoidance technologies to counter distracted driving, and to expand an ongoing study of collision mitigation systems to include systems that sense a stopped vehicle.

* Orders FMCSA to establish a national clearinghouse for drug and alcohol test results, underscoring a rulemaking that already is under way at the agency.

* Orders the agency to set minimum training standards for truck drivers, also underscoring a rulemaking that is under way.

* Tells DOT to work the Defense Department to establish an accelerated truck driver licensing procedure for military veterans.

* Tells FMCSA that it must include performance standards and certification criteria for electronic onboard recorders in the pending eobr rule.

What's Next

This bill is a long way from becoming law.

Today the House T&I Committee will debate the measure and surely vote to clear it. It then must be joined with other provisions of the highway bill from the House Natural Resources Committee, which is working on finding funding, and the Ways and Means Committee, which has responsibility for the tax portion. Then it must go the floor of the House for debate and passage.

Meanwhile, the Senate still is working on its version of the bill. When that's done, the two bills must be hammered into one and passed as a whole.

That process could affect any of these provisions in ways that cannot be predicted.