Chassis providers still pushing roadworthy responsibility on drivers

| 12/17/2009

On a day when truckers who pulled intermodal chassis should be breathing a sigh of relief – knowing their intermodal equipment is roadworthy – it’s not looking like that’s the case with at least one major group of intermodal chassis providers.

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration enacted new regulations in late 2008 that were supposed to ensure that truckers were only offered intermodal equipment that was deemed roadworthy. That regulation partially goes into effect today, Dec. 17.

In theory, because of the new regulation, drivers should be able to take an intermodal chassis from a ready staging area and know that the equipment is roadworthy and compliant with all the equipment regs.

That’s not the message OOIDA Senior Member Danny Schnautz has heard at recent meetings with a group representing intermodal chassis providers who supply approximately 80 percent of all intermodal chassis.

“The original stated goal, of course, was the equipment offered to us would be in good shape; it would be roadworthy,” Schnautz.

Rather than seeing an overhaul of the existing procedures in picking out intermodal chassis for use, Schnautz said the only change in the process is that “we are certifying what we have is good.”

One big problem with that is if the intent of the regulation were in fact being followed, drivers would not even be offered equipment that isn’t roadworthy.

Schnautz said the “certification” process includes either the company or the driver sending a written statement to the intermodal equipment provider saying that the equipment is good. He also said that the intermodal equipment providers will consider the equipment certified as good if a driver leaves the yard with it.

Drivers have always checked out the intermodal equipment to make sure it’s roadworthy, but these certification reports now required from drivers are only going to increase a driver’s liability, Schnautz pointed back.

“Now the driver is providing another certification to it, which to me is just another noose that could be used in the event of a lawsuit or a citation,” Schnautz said.

The meetings also delivered the financial blow to drivers who may find themselves with cited equipment. If you get a ticket pulling a chassis that you signed off on as roadworthy, you may be billed for the citation.

“That again, totally undoes the intent of the law,” Schnautz said.

If the driver doesn’t pay the citation back to the company, drivers and motor carriers could be shut out.

“That’s the hammer that the IEPs use to get all the money in they think they’re due,” he said. “It’s really a one-sided justice system.”

There have been mixed messages on what exactly drivers are going to be liable for certifying, Schnautz said. One is that the driver is 100 percent responsible for the entire chassis. The other says that drivers will only be responsible for what they can visibly see.

If a driver does see something wrong with the chassis, Schnautz said the intermodal providers are encouraging drivers to not fill out reports on bad equipment.

“They said a bad report would take that chassis off-line in the computer, and putting it back in service just takes a lot of computer work on their part,” Schnautz said. “They’ll find it because they are supposedly doing all the good yard work, like they always have. If they had always done this, we wouldn’t have this new rule.

“For them it’s an inconvenient truth if we report a bad chassis. They don’t want to hear it.”

The intermodal group’s policy seems to fly in the face of information provided by Jack Van Steenburg, director of enforcement and compliance with FMCSA to the members of the Owner Operators Coalition of Virginia. The group is a non-profit association of owner operators conducting business out of the Port of Virginia, CSX, and Norfolk Southern rail yards located in Hampton Roads.

Van Steenburg spoke with the group in August and plainly said that any chassis placed for use in the pool must be roadworthy. If found otherwise, it would be in violation of the rule.

Joe Rajkovacz, director of regulatory affairs with the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association said the Association is extremely concerned with intermodal providers shoving the responsibility – and seemingly liability – for the chassis off on drivers.

“FMCSA has said in very clear terms that it is the intermodal equipment providers’ responsibility to make sure the chassis are roadworthy,” Rajkovacz said. “This intermodal group’s efforts are nothing more than a thinly veiled attempt to not only circumvent the intent but the letter of the regulations.”

Rajkovacz, who has worked closely with port groups around the country and FMCSA on the new intermodal rule, said OOIDA will continue to “closely monitor how this situation will play out.”

In an effort to protect themselves from liability, Rajkovacz encouraged all drivers to fill out the DVIR – driver vehicle inspection reports – on all chassis, good or otherwise.

“It doesn’t matter if the equipment provider doesn’t want to hear it. If the equipment is bad, it’s their job to fix it,” Rajkovacz said.

If an intermodal equipment provider continually tenders defective equipment to drivers, Rajkovacz said that FMCSA’s Jack Van Steenburg encouraged drivers to report the provider to the agency’s toll-free number 888-DOT-SAFT (368-7238).

– By Jami Jones, senior editor