Delving Into the Highway Bill: Trucking Issues

The five-year, $305 billion highway bill signed into Dec. 4 by President Obama titled Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act (FAST Act) contained several important provisions that stand to affect the trucking industry and the truckstops that also operate commercial vehicles. Below is a brief overview of those issues.

CSA Reform - The FAST Act takes important steps to reform the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s (FMCSA’s) Compliance, Safety, Accountability (CSA) safety monitoring system, which is a program that publishes safety scores of trucking companies based on the number of citations, crashes and drug violations.  Specifically, the Department of Transportation (DOT) is required to commission a study on the accuracy of the CSA program and take steps to ensure the most reliable data and analysis possible.  Importantly, the bill requires FMCSA to remove the safety scores of trucking companies from public view until the fixes are made to the program. 

The CSA program reform is a major victory for the trucking industry, which has consistently argued that CSA produces flawed data that creates an erroneous picture of most carriers’ safety records.  The Government Accountability Office (GAO) earlier this year issued a report criticizing the quality of the safety data used by the DOT to determine motor carrier safety. The GAO found that the safety data collected is not a reliable predictor of motor carrier safety.

Study on Liability Insurance Minimums - The FAST Act also directs FMCSA to fully study the impacts of raising carrier liability minimum insurance limits before initiating any rule to raise them.  This provision adds a major hurdle to FMCSA’s potential to increase the amount of liability insurance motor carriers are required to hold (currently at $750,000 for general freight haulers). 

Permanently Halts Wetlines Rulemaking - The new law  permanently withdraws the proposed 2011 wetlines rule, which was released in 2011. This is a major victory for tank truck operators that haul motor fuel. 

On Jan. 27, 2011, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) issued a proposed rule regarding the transportation of gasoline in the external product piping (wetlines) on cargo tanks transporting flammable liquids.  The proposed rule limited the amount of gasoline in each wetline to one liter. It further gave tank truck operators 12 years to retrofit existing tanks with bottom protection (such as steel rails or purging equipment), and any trailer manufactured two years after the date of regulation would have to be equipped with purging devices or steel guard rails to shield the wetlines from impact in the event of a collision. 

In the 2012 Highway Bill, Congress included a provision that prevented DOT from arbitrarily adopting a wetlines mandate until a Government Accountability Office (GAO) study was completed.  In September 2013, the GAO concluded that DOT did not have adequate information to determine whether a wetlines mandate was necessary to improve safety. 

Truck size/weight limits - Absent from the bill are measures to change truck size and weight standards. Some lawmakers and lobbying groups pushed for raising federal weight limits to 91,000 pounds and increasing maximum-allowed length of tandem trailers to 33 feet from the current 28-foot max. The Senate instructed conferees to reject any measures related to increasing the length of twin trailers during the highway bill conference negotiations. Earlier this year, the Senate Appropriations Committee had approved an amendment to the transportation funding bill requiring states to allow trucks with two 33-foot trailers on their highways, but no vote was taken on the floor. (Provisions also were stripped from the Transportation and Housing and Urban Development (THUD) appropriations bill during the amendment process. The language remains in the House version of an appropriations bill.)   

Driver shortage - In an effort to address the driver shortage, the bill creates an opportunity for young veterans returning from service to enter the trucking industry.  The new law allows military veterans under the age of 21 with experience and training operating equipment comparable to a heavy-duty truck to more easily obtain a commercial trucking job. The changes would allow military driving experience count toward skills tests.

This provision marked a compromise between the trucking industry – which sought to permit allowing individuals older than 18 to drive commercial trucks across state lines (current law requires drivers be at least 21) – and those who oppose increasing the age minimum.

Driver drug testing - The FAST Act also includes changes to driver drug testing protocol, which will allow carriers to use hair testing in lieu of urine testing to satisfy federal drug testing requirements.  Before this change is allowed to take effect, the bill requires the Department of Health and Human Services to establish guidelines/standards for hair testing within a year. 

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