What the???? DOT's revised placard rule is for real

| 12/26/2001

If you haul hazardous materials, does your trailer display the flip-style placards? You know, the placards that read "Please drive safely" "Drive carefully" when no hazmat identification is displayed? According to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, pleasant slogans used in such a way are now in violation of federal regulations and must be removed pronto.

"We've got 1,900 trailers that use those kinds of placards," says Harry Crabtree, vice president of driver services for Tennessee-based truckload carrier LandAir Transport Inc. "What are we doing about it? We're having those 'drive safely' signs spray painted black." Crabtree says on Oct. 7 a LandAir driver received a $50 ticket.

OOIDA is recommending that trucking companies who have not yet removed the slogans from their flip-style placards do so as soon as possible to avoid costly fines as the FMCSA is now enforcing a requirement prohibiting motor carriers from placing "extraneous" information on placards and in placard holders. According to FMSCA's Dave Longo, this new restriction, effective as of Oct. 1, 2001, subjects violators to a civil penalty of not less than $250 and not more than $27,500 per violation and possible enforcement action by FMCSA.

Why all the flap and the high fines for what appears to be a benign message? FMCSA says the revised placard rule represents an effort to protect the traveling public and believes that "extraneous" information displayed on placards, placard type displays and in placard holders detracts from the basic function of the placard. Placards must be strictly reserved for hazards communication with all other confusing or conflicting displays prohibited.

"The primary function of the placard is to inform and protect initial emergency responders and first at the scene people," explains John Siebert, Project Manager, OOIDA Foundation Inc. "In their final rule, it was the conclusion of the Research and Special Programs Administration (RSPA) that a placard with a public service announcement content could possibly look like an alert placard if damaged in an accident. People approaching a crash site should be able to know immediately if the truck is carrying highly explosive fertilizer chemicals or boxes of fried pigskins."

How would you get a $27,500 civil fine for violating the new rule? The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) cites two ways. Chief of FMCSA's Hazardous Material Division, Bill Quaid, says serious fines could be levied if the motor carrier demonstrates willful non-compliance of the rule effective Oct. 1 or a big fine could result from a serious incident.

"If there was an incident and it was established that confusion over the placard significantly hampered response teams," " explains Quaid. "For example, if I-95 were closed down for 12 hours because emergency responders thought a (crashed) truck was hauling dangerous hazmat, it's possible this could mean a big fine."

This action enforces a section of a final rule, originally issued Jan. 8, 1997 by the Research and Special Programs Administration (RSPA) in response to the Hazardous Materials Transportation Uniform Safety Act of 1990 (HMTUSA). In the final rule, RSPA amended the rule to prohibit any sign, advertisement or slogan (such as "Drive Safely") or device that could be confused with any placard.

"There are other places and other ways to say 'drive safely' that does not put in jeopardy the placard system for emergency responders," says Siebert.

The specifics are contained in 49 CFR, Ch.1, subpart 172.502 under prohibited and permissive placarding. Effective Oct. 1, 2001, "Any sign, advertisement, slogan (such as 'drive safely'), or device that by its color, design, shape or content, could be confused with any placard prescribed" in the rules. The rule gives the safety slogans as examples. For additional information, the final rule may be viewed in pdf or text format at: http://hazmat.dot.gov/hm206.pdf or http://hazmat.dot.gov/rules/hm206.htm, respectively.

FMCSA is instructing anyone with questions concerning the enforcement of this rule to contact their nearest FMCSA Service Center: Eastern (202) 366-6892, Southern (404)-562-3600, Midwestern (708) 283-3565. Western (415) 744-3088, Monday through Friday between 7:30 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. On weekends, holidays, or after hours, please contact the 24-hour Department of Transportation Safety Hotline at 1-888-DOT-SAFT, 1-888-368-7238.
--Sandi Soendker