The House later this week will consider language in the multiyear transportation-spending bill that establishes a national hiring standard for motor carriers. However, while shippers, freight brokers, and owner-operated carriers might be pleased that a federal standard is on the table, they are not happy with the provision's wording.
The provision, passed by the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee in late October, would deem a motor carrier fit to operate if it was registered with proper operating authority, had obtained the minimum insurance, and had a satisfactory safety fitness determination issued by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA), a subagency of the Department of Transportation that oversees the nation's trucks and buses. The problem, according to some in the industry, lies with the third requirement: Most of the nation's 530,000 registered motor carriers and owner-operators do not receive a full safety review to qualify for a safety rating from the FMCSA.
Critics of the language say it threatens to exclude the many thousands of operators that remain unrated yet operate in a satisfactory manner. The FMCSA, which as of earlier this year had only 330 inspectors, has said it focuses its enforcement efforts on about 8,000 so-called "high-risk carriers" responsible for about 90 percent of reportable accidents involving a truck.
Rep. John Duncan Jr. (R-Tenn.), who has twice introduced legislation to create a national motor carrier hiring standard, has proposed an amendment to the current bill that would deem an unrated carrier fit to operate as long as it had not been issued an out-of-service order from the FMCSA, had paid all outstanding fines, had responded to a new entrant audit, and was not considered an imminent safety hazard to the motoring public.
The amendment, one of an estimated 270 expected to be offered on the House floor for inclusion in the six-year, $325 billion bill, is supported by the Transportation Intermediaries Association (TIA), the trade group representing freight brokers, and the Owner-Operators Independent Drivers Association (OOIDA), which represents owner-operator drivers. The American Trucking Associations (ATA), which represents larger for-hire carriers, is neutral on the amendment.
The full House is expected to vote on the overall bill Thursday or Friday, after which time House-Senate conferees will meet to reconcile both versions.
Language in the prior House bills would have qualified a carrier as long as it had not received an unsatisfactory safety rating from the FMCSA.
The Senate's version of transport-funding legislation, passed by the chamber in July, does not include language establishing a federal truck-hiring standard.
A national hiring standard is critical to users of motor carrier services because it would establish federal guidelines to shield them from legal liability in the event a carrier selected to move a load was involved in an accident. TIA, in particular, has been aggressively pushing federal legislation to override what it labels a patchwork quilt of state safety laws that are difficult to comply with. This patchwork, according to the association, can leave carriers, brokers, and shippers exposed to significant monetary damages in the event of an accident. Brokers, in particular, are very concerned about their legal exposure, as they are generally responsible for choosing the carrier to move their customers' shipments.
PROPOSAL TO INCREASE GROSS VEHICLE WEIGHT
Another amendment to the proposed House bill would increase to 91,000 pounds a truck's maximum gross vehicle weight that states would be required to allow on the national highway system, as long as the vehicles were equipped with a sixth axle to improve handling and braking stability. The national network includes the 46,876-mile Interstate Highway System. All but six states—which include New York and five New England states—cap at 80,000 the gross vehicle weight limit on their portion of the national network. A truck's gross vehicle weight—which is the total weight of a tractor, trailer, and cargo—has not been changed at the federal level since 1982.
Supporters of the measure have called it a compromise from earlier efforts to increase the gross vehicle weight ceiling to 97,000 pounds. Opponents of the amendment, notably the Teamsters union, say the heavier weights would compromise truck safety, add to worsening highway congestion, and damage an already-brittle infrastructure.